It gives me great pleasure to host the @wecops blogs here. This was written by Dan Reynolds and myself and summarises the great debate on well being a few weeks back. Next up EBP … Coming soon.
Enjoy – Emma
This is the first @WeCops blog. It follows on from the wellbeing discussion with DCC Andy Rhodes. We hope it will be useful and we very much welcome feedback for the future. It is based mainly on what was gleaned from the discussion on Twitter and we want to reflect the debate in the right way.
Whilst all of those involved in @wecops have an active interest in the future of the police and policing – we all have mixed backgrounds, abilities and experiences.
As a group we are seeking to facilitate discussions around subjects that matter to policing, from those that know best about it – You!
The subject of ‘Wellbeing’ is fast becoming a recognised term in policing but the question is do we currently have sufficient understanding of what this means or is it just a current fad? The core of this term appears to lie with our world view of how we see and understand each other and recognise each other’s experiences. As employees this operates at many levels – at the grass roots level with the people to the left and right of us and with leaders of teams, departments and indeed the whole organisation. It is important stuff to get right given that it requires a shift in thinking from seeing staff simply as a resource to one that sees them as individuals. These individuals all have differing needs that are influenced by a range of sometimes complex issues resulting from both their work and home life.
Three questions were posted on this subject and the following narrative pulls out some of the key messages gleaned from the conversation that resulted (with some extra observations from the @wecops team).
Q1. Is it policing work or other issues that tip us over in terms of stress anxiety?
Q2. If we agree great leaders prioritise wellbeing what stops many from doing so?
Q3. When we recruit people how do we assess their readiness for policing at a personal resilience level?
Is it ‘policing’ work or other issues that tip us over in terms of stress? The dichotomy of the work <–> home balance is that we can generally cope with stress in one or the other but it becomes increasingly difficult when issues arise in both our worlds. Policing is littered with failed relationships. Is it worth questioning why this is happening or should it just be accepted? Given we now have a better understanding of some of the reasons why this might occur do we need to consider if the root cause is work / home stress and what might be done to try and change this?
It is recognised that pressure can present itself in many different ways and that assistance and support needs to be tailored to individual needs. When people do feel able to disclose issues of stress and wellbeing (and that in itself is complex) does a standardised approach via organisational sickness policies work adequately and is the process in any way based on the evidence of what might work well for particularly issues? There may be reason to suggest that we stop and reflect on where we are with officer wellbeing at this point in time. A piece of research commissioned by the Police Federation England and Wales is to explore officer perceptions of stress and wellbeing in the context of reform and austerity. Coupled with a large scale survey being conducted by Surrey University on behalf of the Police Dependants Trust about gaps in service provision the evidence base will be much clearer on WHAT the police are dealing with in relation to the ability to deal WITH it.
A lot of the issues arising may be due to a lack of ‘trust / confidence and sense of internal legitimacy in the organisation as an employer. If an employee feels that it is impossible to try new things, be unsuccessful and learn from this or, indeed feel unable to make a mistake without being considered a failure it does little for the development of innovation and new thinking. This was a common issue arising from the debate about wellbeing. Therefore what underlying stress can this influence if officers feel entirely risk averse for fear of facing disciplinary action or sanctions. A lack of trust and confidence has been identified as a recurring theme and may be a sign of the continuing prevalence of a blame culture. It terms of evidence this links in strongly with officers’ sense of organisational justice and fairness at work. There is a wealth of literature on the impact of this on advocacy in the workplace, commitment to reform and priorities and also a sense of professionalism.
Another common theme was officers’ perceived ability to speak up and express problems (which was described as culturally seen as weakness). Staff will try and ‘make it work’ (again another cultural trait) until the problem becomes too big to manage on their own. This is then picked up after the horse has bolted by supervision or when officers are off sick – generally too late. We often talk about needing ‘personal resilience’ to counter this but what does this actually mean and what consideration is there of the negative implications of too much personal resilience?
Resilience is a word that is kicked around right from recruitment into policing. Resilience is partly about the process of being able to make mistakes and subsequently learn from them. This takes us back to the importance of trust and cooperation in any organisation, neither of which can be imposed from above but can be fostered by the culture of the organisation. There is a need for what Simon Sinek calls a ‘culture of safety’ where individuals feel safe enough to reach their potential without constantly feeling they are battling against threats from within. Maybe resilience is not a personal trait but rather an outcome of having confidence in an organisation that takes time to develop and foster. Blame cultures do not foster this trust.
Stress in policing takes many forms. The primary is often the roller coaster of emotions that front line staff can feel as they bounce from job to job; high stress & high impact and then straight out to something mundane. However it has been highlighted that it is not the high impact stuff that causes issues but rather the cumulative effect of a ‘drip,drip,drip’ of low level stress that can have a bigger impact. A combination of street work / office work, internal politics, some dysfunctional management practises and performance regimes focused on readiness rather than resilience are all common triggers for stress. This is particularly critical to remember if there are also issues going on externally at home and in officers’ personal lives.
These small cumulative effects may build up to become what was described as ‘a time bomb’ of sickness and low of morale. The feeling of helplessness when faced with an inability to plan a life outside of work has historically always been the trade off for a life in the police service. This is usually the point where incongruence, imbalance and inflexibility is too great and the ‘discretionary extra effort’ can get lost. This is clear in the lack of interest in overtime irrespective of the rate of pay. This again compounds the issues with a vicious cycle of further rest days / annual leave denial in order to fill staffing requirements. This is a startling detail when considered in line with the hierarchy of basic needs, if pay is no longer a motivator. If pay no longer motivates then should we ask wat does – particularly in the context of the issues with retention in the police.
It is clear that there are different and opposing views on this subject and officers and others have voiced different opinions. Some advocate wellbeing as an effective driver of performance and productivity, others state that there are always new recruits ready to fill the spaces left as people leave. The evidence base is far from complete about the impact of ignoring wellbeing on organisational health. “Some just don’t get it” was a common comment made in the discussion and there may be some truth in this. It seemed ironic that a recent ‘anonymous’ piece in The Guardian about stress in policing pointed almost to a need to return to a time when officers had a swift swig of whiskey and got on with it. I think the majority of those on this debate thankfully disagreed with this option.
The need to do more with less (due to the cuts to police budgets) has had a definite impact. Increased pressure and stress in the workplace featured in the debate and it was recognised that senior leaders are under even more pressure than before. As a result no one should be surprised that leaders in policing are suffering from the same stresses as those on the frontline.
A constant pressure to deal with today’s problems to the detriment of any long term planning has been identified as a problem in policing for many years. “Give us a crisis and we rise to it, ask us to plan and a cold sweat breaks out!” There is a need to consider what policing is and review how the police deal with that. However many dislike change as much as they like the way things have always been done! As a result, the challenge of how to keep everyone happy is difficult. Perhaps a more connected approach between HR, training and PSD would help. There is work underway to link these departments up to foster a more wellbeing based approach and there is much to learn from other public sectors. These problems are not unique to policing.
Supervisors are key in shaping wellbeing for people. Their attitude was identified as crucial to an individual’s wellbeing. Policing traditionally has a culture of ‘shape up or ship out’ and of ‘survival of the fittest’. There is still a strong culture where mental health issues is seen as a sign of weakness and that staff are reluctant to speak up, until it becomes a serious issue. If we are truly to reach a place where we can deal with some of the cumulative stress at an earlier stage, a cultural change may be required to encourage staff to seek help earlier and not deny the issues. The stress can often be as a result of what ‘might’ have occurred just as much as what actually did occur. Supervisors are key to fostering this supportive environment.
But all this takes time and there are obvious issues of large teams and large areas to manage. All of which contribute to having less time with individuals – compounding an already poor situation. The removal of aspects of work simply to count or justify what work has already been completed could release pressure and time from supervisors and allow for greater time working alongside their teams?
On a positive note, there are many senior officers who are interested and understand the importance as they want the best for their teams. By sharing stories (evident in this @wecops discussion) and speaking out to make wellbeing the new ‘norm’ there is hope that this might have an effect on the morale and the welfare of all in policing. The challenge will be to identify and share any best practice to benefit policing and the wider public sector.
This does mean that there are difficult decisions to be made by all leaders within policing as we recognise there is a trade off between efficiency and how to maintain / build morale? To quote Simon Sinek: “You see the betrayal of leadership when people are sacrificed to achieve the numbers. A true leader would sooner sacrifice the numbers – to save their people.”
Please follow @IanHeskey on twitter for more wellbeing debates! And @DCCLancs