The number of police officers taking time off because of mental ill health is increasing.
That should alarm us all.
To be precise, figures released to the Police Oracle following a Freedom of Information request revealed that 13,263 officers took time off due to psychological illnesses in the financial year 2021/22.
More than 200 of those were from Cheshire Constabulary.
The nationwide total is the highest since the survey started almost a decade ago, while the annual increase is north of 50 per cent.
Am I surprised? Sadly, I’m not. However, it does worry me.
How many of those signed off due to stress, depression, anxiety or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) need not have been had they received help sooner?
That must be our focus.
For too long, we’ve waited for people to reach breaking point before acting.
While the support that is available to police officers at that stage is good, often the damage done is long-lasting.
We can do more to mitigate that.
It is said that the wellbeing of the rank and file is a priority for all police chiefs, but I’m unconvinced the majority of our members believe that is sincere.
They read the quotes, or listen to the soundbites, and yet live a reality on the front line that is disconnected.
There the priority is performance, which is obviously of genuine importance, but cops aren’t machines.
For that reason, it’s critical wellbeing is placed above operational needs because you can’t perform to the best of your ability if you’re struggling mentally.
That’s where the appropriate support should be.
The Police Federation of England and Wales wants to collaborate with chief officers and decision-makers to make improvements so that the very individuals they are duty-bound to look after don’t follow the trend reported above.
Policing is a job like no other, so shouldn’t be compared.
A stressful career, which exposes individuals to traumatic incidents every day, was made more so by the coronavirus pandemic.
That said, the challenges presented by there being fewer officers with a higher workload – under greater scrutiny than ever – were already having a detrimental impact on mental health before we had to change our way of working and living.
We use the mantra ‘prevention is better than cure’, and we believe in its effectiveness.
Everybody benefits when it works because it presents a chance for a cop to get appropriate help before their situation becomes unmanageable.
But what does that look like in practice?
I’ve insisted for a while, and in a vocal way, that the part played by supervisors is essential if we’re to prioritise officer welfare.
They have conversations regularly with team members about their performance, but neglect to ask about wellbeing.
A simple ‘How are you doing?’ or ‘I’ve noticed you’ve not been yourself recently, is everything ok?’ can be a vital first step.
We place an emphasis on encouraging individuals to ask for help, but that’s among the hardest things to do – particularly for police officers who perceive a stigma attached to mental ill health that forms a barrier they can’t overcome.
We know from research that among the most frequent reasons for non-disclosure of mental health problems is not wanting to be treated differently.
Supervisors should be taught to identify the signs of deteriorating mental health, and encouraged to intervene when they spot them.
Of course, self-awareness is important too.
If we recognise changes in our own behaviour, and understand why they’re occurring, that could be a catalyst to seek help.
However, support from a supervisor is essential if prevention intervention is to work as it should.
When an individual is stressed – and we know from the most recent Demand Capacity and Welfare Survey that a heavy workload is top of the list of reported reasons for work-related mental health difficulties – then line managers shouldn’t be afraid of initiating a face-to-face conversation.
As a branch, we’re also doing our bit to assist.
Since starting in this role, I am provided with a list each week of members who are off sick.
I ask one of our workplace representatives to contact them, after 21 days’ absence, to have a chat and point them in the direction of where they can get help if they need it.
It isn’t the Federation’s responsibility, but we know from feedback this proactive approach does make a difference.
Provisions have improved in Cheshire, where we’ve made constant progress for a while.
But until we stop relying on support being reactive, we remain vulnerable to the numbers of people unable to work because of mental ill health rising further.
We simply can’t afford that.
If you’ve read this and feel that you’d like to talk to somebody now, then don’t hesitate to contact a local fed rep or me – I’m always contactable by phone.
All members of the police family, who are suffering from a work-related issue, can also refer themselves for counselling provided by Police Care UK.
Cheshire Constabulary also offers, via Vivup, an employee assistance programme for psychological support. Support is available 24/7 and self-referrals can be made by contacting 0330 0884480.