Over recent months the issue of police officer well-being has been written about extensively. In December 2014 The Guardian reported statistics from the Metropolitan Police Service which revealed that the number of days officers had taken off with stress had risen by 43% over 5 years. Plus the amount of officers leaving the job had risen by three-quarters. That is in London alone.
Blogs by front line officers themselves cover the real ‘human consequences’ the cuts have impacted on and this is doubly concerning at a time when many discuss the existence of a strong blame culture within their organisations. The admittance of stress at work, they sense, leaves them at risk of both being reprimanded for not delivering effectively and being held back opportunity wise within the promotion structure. Officers believe that responsibility for mistakes is passed down through the ranks and the added ‘risks’ presented by under resourced departments and over worked staff negatively impact on both the welfare of officers and their capacity to deliver a service to the public.
By the very nature of the police role, stress as a factor in policing has been around forever. I undertook research in 2005 in London with specialist officers who dealt with victims of sexual violence. Many of them spoke to me about their perceived inability to discuss their own stress within the workplace as they felt they would be considered as weak, unable to cope and were therefore left unsupported to cope with these issues alone. Perhaps now, coupled with the reduced occupational health services and the sense of officers just having to ‘do’ and get on, this becomes even more concerning in terms of the longer term implications this might have on police officers.
About a year ago I became interested in the use of social media, particularly Twitter, as a forum for officers to converse, anonymously, with other officers about their perceptions of policing, the impact that their work was having on them as individuals and the lack of support they felt they were receiving from their senior leaders in some force areas. A few weeks ago I decided to send out a survey, through Twitter, to officers who wanted to talk about their use of social media forums both in a professional and personal capacity and what the main reasons were for this decision. A few themes arose from the survey which I will write further about in coming months, but the issue of Twitter as an informal support network for officers was prominent.
Off line I had all sorts of ranks and roles contacting me about their use of Twitter as a way of gaining support from others in a safe environment that left them faceless and at no risk of the negativity they felt they may receive if they formally discussed this within their workplaces. This usage did not simply relate to their own personal support but also to the need, for some, to know that the issues they faced were not individual to them but were in fact experienced nationally by all sorts of officers in many different positions.
Many officers work in very difficult environments where for a wealth of reasons they feel unable to discuss their own mental health concerns. Twitter can offer them a space to collectively and yet anonymously share stressful experiences that they cannot do in the reality of their own workplace for fear of being perceived as not coping with the expectations of the job. It can be complicated for officers working in a ‘can do’ operational culture to admit that they are struggling and this forum allows them to share issues and make contacts rather than them facing the more challenging reactions they believe they may receive if they voice such issues at work.
I was privileged to have one Twitter user discuss with me in some depth, their own issues about work stress and the reaction they had received from their force. This particular individual did receive a service from occupational health and has since had extensive counselling however the reaction from her supervisors has not been entirely supportive. There has been a sense of not being believed at times and the seriousness of the trauma she has experienced not being taken seriously. Indeed there is a clear perception from this officer that her managers simply feel she must get back to work and put this behind her. However the on-going trauma experienced and further triggered by certain events has been at times debilitating and Twitter has been a really useful forum for her. Having access to this on line community assisted her with being able to remove the label she described as having put on her by her supervisors as not being able to cope.
This officer has also, via twitter, assisted other officers who have experienced stress issues. The social media environment, she believes, does not make judgements about people. It simply offers an arena where the message that stress and mental health can affect anyone can be spread to others. “Officers don’t openly talk about having mental health issues but when you reach out to someone and just say the odd word, it’s surprising how many of us there are out there, keeping it quiet..”
There is indeed some excellent work going on to try and raise the profile of officer wellbeing and the wider ramifications of such issues. However these remain in pockets rather than national strategies acknowledging the impact the cuts to policing have had on its staff. There is significant debate around about whether officers should use Twitter to voice concerns about policing issues as we all know policing is impartial to political ideologies. However from reading over the statistics about police morale, the reduced services available to officers who suffer from stress and/or mental health issues and the lack of support some report to receive from their supervisors about this, I would suggest that social media networks are a very positive method for officers to make contacts with others who may feel the same. Talking to others who are willing to converse about their own experiences in an open way but with individuals they may never meet face to face appears to be an effective way of officers mutually supporting each other.
If the perception amongst these officers is that no one is willing to put in place an effective environment where officers feel safe to discuss real concerns about their own health, having access to such informal forums seems to be very helpful to some.