The Journey – Not The Destination

This article caught my eye today. The headline about how “thousand of police officers have taken sick leave due to ‘stress’ brought on by cuts” is misleading and unhelpful.

This article published in the Telegraph on 9th February 2014 is even worse. It’s headline screams about the cost to the taxpayer which stress related sickness in the police generates. The figures aren’t really that high but it is unsympathetic and points the reader towards being suitably outraged that any officer dare be off sick with stress related illness. Strange they didn’t do an FOI to see what other illnesses are “costing the taxpayer”. Nope – just “stress”.

I have a real issue with the word “stress”. When we talk about stigma I personally think that it has become one of those words which has become negatively associated with mental health disorders.

“Oh – he’s off with ‘stress’ – poor didums. Well – tell him to grow a pair and get back to work.”

The term “stress” tends to conjure up images of someone who just can’t cope; someone who is weak; someone who isn’t playing for the same team. By implication – if they are going to be that wobbly then frankly we would all be better off without them.

Except – we wouldn’t. Many good people have had to leave because the signs weren’t recognised or dealt with early enough.

“Stress” is an alarm signal. We all suffer with it from time to time and a sensible amount of the “right” stress is actually positive. Why else would we go on roller coaster rides?

“Stress” means that the body has reached a tipping point. For some that is lower than others whilst some can absorb all that life has to throw at them without ever showing symptoms. It is part of the human condition. It becomes dangerous when it takes over and prevents normal functioning.

Many things can cause “stress” – overwork, deadlines, targets, pressure at home, poor relationships at work, sleeplessness or trauma.

Look at that list again – which isn’t exhaustive – and consider how much of that applies to your world of work and home. How many of those influences are you subject to every day?

There are a couple of things which annoy me about this article. Firstly I think the headline paints a picture of a workforce in crisis rather than a group of individuals who are suffering. More than that – it is actually being used to score political points. I think Steve Williams response is very measured.

Maybe cuts are having an effect. There is no doubt that the workload is increasing even if “crime is falling.” There are noticeably less police officers around the briefing room and so that workload is less equitably shared.

What really annoys me, however, is that it suggests that officers are routinely crumbling at the drop of a hat.

The comments section on one other paper solicited the usual ‘sympathy’ when it ran an identical article a day ago.

“They should try running a business!”

“If they can’t take it they should leave”

“They should toughen up and get on with the job we pay them to do.”

ALL jobs carry a degree of stress and some carry more than others. I guess it must be quite stressful to run a successful business – where the line between profit and bankruptcy hinges on every decision you make and the hours you keep. Where the employment of several or several thousand is entirely in your hands. Where the shareholders will look for a scapegoat at the first hint of a profit warning.

These comments are the language of a race to the bottom. “My job is more stressful than yours!”

It reminds me of the Monty Python sketch where the four Yorkshiremen try to outdo each other with ridiculous stories of poverty and hardship – “you were lucky!”

The fact is policing is stressful – many jobs and careers are stressful – but let me examine the “stress” of policing.

The hours are rubbish. You are fighting your body clock every single day. Your family life suffers as you have to miss important events like Christmas.

So far – so ordinary. Same for any shift worker.

Add to this, however, the relentless “bad” you encounter as a police officer. Let’s face it, people don’t ring the police to tell us everything is ok, what a great day they are having and would we mind popping round so they can tell us about it.

No – police work is largely about dealing with crisis. It is why leadership both of self and of staff is so important.

What do you do when your world melts down? You call the police.

It is then these officers who will come around and try to salvage something of the situation. That may mean dealing with a frightened and vulnerable victim. It may mean dealing with aggression and violence. It may mean dealing with danger or death.

There is a saying that “behaviour breeds behaviour” but I would also argue that this could be extended to “experience breeds emotion.”

Police officers are human beings and have the same vulnerabilities as everyone else. They just suppress them. This is not easy or healthy.

When a student officer walks in on day one they will be full of excitement and wonder. There is no College of Policing trick to desensitising police officers.

There is no training to overcome the human instinct to be horrified – just exposure.

Whilst constant exposure can allow someone to build up a resilience and tolerance for the horrific – it needs an outlet. Without an outlet – things will eventually explode.

The comments above fail to recognise or appreciate that police officers are prepared to “take a hit” to prevent others from having to do so.

Victim Support exists to support those who do take the hits. It is a worthy charity who try to help pick up the pieces when the police leave. But to twist a well known phrase to a different use “Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?”

It is quite likely that an officer will go to several incidents a shift which would ordinarily trigger negative emotions in a bystander or victim. By the end of a week that will be magnified. By the end of a year…

I have worked in policing for almost 20 years. Most of that has been on the front line. If I tried to list the absolutely appalling things I have seen and dealt with then this blog would need an 18 rating and probably wouldn’t get past the censors.

I thought I had seen everything and nothing could affect me until just over a year ago. I have dealt with dismemberment, murder, violence and carnage. I have taken young children out of their family home because it was the safest thing to do. I have seen things which I would hope most people would never see.

How long can someone work in child protection before it gets too much? Every murder scene I have ever been to – and there have been numerous – is etched on my memory as though I was stood there now. Every suicide. Every fatal road collision. Every large scale disorder. Every traumatic death. Every time I have taken a child into protection by force.

I am not asking for sympathy. There are many jobs which have a harrowing element to them but the incidents I have described above are, for most people, ONCE in a lifetime and hopefully NEVER in a lifetime experiences. I call it “my job” – “my calling”.

I have absorbed and internalised these experiences for two decades. As an Inspector it is now my job to shield my officers from the worst of it whenever I can. My Sergeants and I are the ones they look to when things have gone “bad” and it is down to us to bury whatever we are feeling and take control. Has this made me a hardened, cynical bastard? You bet it has but I strive to override that and remain calm in the face of crisis and sympathetic and sensitive to those people who have not had the exposure I have had.

Then, last year, after a particularly harrowing incident – I lost that. I was fine when I was dealing with it – policing instinct took over – but when I got home – for the first time in 20 years, I cried. I wasn’t the only one affected either. Several of my team were and we had to support each other in the aftermath.

The incident? We had tried to save the life of a two year old road accident victim – and failed.

The Christmas before that, my team worked right over the festive period. By the end of that week we had dealt with five traumatic suicides. Come the last one I turned up and sent my entire team away – they had dealt with enough. I took over and dealt with it.

It is easy to sit and comment on the apparent weakness of officers who seem to crumble but it takes no account of how many incidents has led that officer to that place where it eventually spills over.

The critics above who show such little sympathy are criticising the destination – not the journey and that is unfair. We should be sympathetic to work related stress whether it is a police officer suffering or someone who works in a less confrontational role or occupation.

Work related stress is work related stress – no matter what job you have. Am I running a medium sized business with all the stress that encompasses? No. Am I in a foxhole in Afghanistan? No.

I am proud to lead a team of people who deal with trauma and crisis on a daily basis and I see it as my job to hold THEM together as much as it is my job to ensure they hold the victims together.

This is an awesome responsibility and it is not helped by articles like the Mirror one which trivialise the situation and blame it on Government cuts.

I am quite sure that they are having an effect – I do not diminish that or ignore it – but – for the love of God – this job and many others are hard enough without this kind of cheap shot getting into print.

“Cuts” are not to blame for stress in policing – they may be a contributing factor but where I work – we are too busy policing and dealing with all the stresses that brings to think about them too much.

What is to blame is the constant demands of the NATURE of the work plus ineffective support networks and a culture of “bottle it up.”

If you want to have a sensible debate about stress in policing – let’s start there.


20 responses to “The Journey – Not The Destination”

  1. julieanneda says :

    Excellent piece; excellent points

  2. Ron says :

    And then there are the false and malicious allegations and the professional standards investigations.
    A very good explanation though. Well done and take care of yourself.

  3. Maria says :

    What a wonderfully well written piece. I know that the police have an incredibly hard job but this piece really brings home just how hard it is. Huge respect to each and every one of you.

  4. Paul says :

    I am often asked by family , friends I regret retiring at 30years? (I could have gone on because of my age for a few years after that ) I find it hard to explain why I couldn’t go on further. In my case I had done my time , people have a limit and I had reached mine and it was time for someone else to step in. If people ask similar questions again and I am struggling to explain ..this is where I will send them . Excellent piece. Thank you

  5. Sunseeker says :

    This has prompted two thoughts: firstly you are so right that police officers see people at time of meltdowns. One such occasion was a few years ago when my sister was involved in fatal car crash. She was blameless, the other individual was 4 times over the drink driving limit, he died, she felt she ought to have been able to avoid him, why did she live yet he died. It was one policeman who helped make some sense of the situation. I don’t remember his name; he came into contact with our family at a very bad moment but his impact and the words he found to say to my sister at the time and through the inquest will remain forever. You say thank you but he will never realise the long-term affect his involvement had in helping make sense of a nightmare.

    Secondly, that word “stress”; in a different life I had a high pressured job, very different to that of a police officer but not without its own challenges. I thrived on the pressure but it turned to stress and sadly I lost that job following MH problems. I very much wish we could ring fence the word “stress” to keep it for those times when pressure just falls off the scale. Work related stress must not be underrated. I cannot begin to imagine the extent it features in your work but please know that for the awesome responsibilty you carry, you can also make an awesome impact. Thank you for your blog. It was a thought provoking read.

  6. elis bartlett says :

    Well written and wholly accurate. Its a sad state of affairs and as a paramedic dealing with much the same set of challenges i’m frustrated by the responses i get when I explain the stresses involved in the job. Everyone (teachers especially for some reason) seem to have it much worse. I don’t believe they have a stress free job but they seem to believe that I go to work for a break!! (i don’t work for the fire brigade! ;))

    • Helen says :

      Glad you mentioned paramedics, don’t know why the police think their job is more difficult than yours, it’s not! Death of a two yr old is their job too.

      • Luke says :

        Nobody said it was. We’re just the ones getting slated in the media, hence our defensive attitude

  7. Alistair Sloan says :

    We can’t expect the police to clear up after fatal road collisions, turn up the scene of murders, fish bodies out of rivers, look at depraved images as part of investigations and all of the other nasty jobs that they have to do, and not expect them to be negatively affected psychologically.

  8. retiredandangry says :

    Thank you Nathan. An excellent and insightful blog. No drama, just how it is

  9. Richard Horton says :

    Strong points. We’ll made.

  10. Andy wright says :

    Excellent piece. Thank you. I have no doubt this is a vain hope but wouldn’t it be wonderful if certain Govt.Ministers and probably more importantly certain ‘Anti’ Police journos read this blog. (The Telegraph could publish it as a counter to the naive and crass article of 9th Feb)

  11. Luke says :

    I’m leaving to run a business. In fact I’m leaving to START a business. I’ve got a wife & two kids (2&4) and yes, it will be risky financially, and stressful too. But it won’t be as stressful as being a cop.

  12. Steve Bullock says :

    I left to start a business in 2006. I had no idea of the stress involved in running a small business. The recession has hit the world of business with a massive sledgehammer. I left the police 7 yrs ago after 21 yrs, mostly as patrol or custody sgt. I miss the strength of colleagues who fully understand. I miss the support network (the unofficial one) which is real and vital. Is business less stressful, no just a different stress. But at least nobody is trying to stab me or beat me up. But stress is stress, wherever it comes from. The Police will always be victim of cheap political shots from the media and/or politicians. You have to ignore it and just carry on doing what you have to do. Can’t imagine what it must be like with 25% less staff though!!

  13. Chrissy says :

    What an excellent article. Hope this officer gets the support he needs. His team are lucky to have him in post. And we the public are damn lucky to have officers like them protecting us every day.

  14. thebigsink says :

    Great article. I wish mainstream journalism wess as sensible, well written and well informed as this.

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