Stress and PTSD

Stress and PTSD, quite current.  Lots of talk about it and quite rightly so.  Do our Police Forces understand it?  Not sure, but they never used to, although I have to say that the differences across the country are immense.

Many, many years ago, in the days of Crystal Sets and Black and White square TV screens (well 1987 actually) I took part in a BBC documentary.  It was one of the Horizon series of documentaries entitled The John Wayne Syndrome.  The subject matter was Stress in the Police Force, “Horizon investigates the effect of stress on police officers and how their increasing job pressures affect their health and relationship with the public. “

When the Producer first sought volunteers to take part in this programme he wrote an open letter to (presumably) all Police Forces asking for examples of stress within the Police Force.  I was in the middle of a period of disenchantment with the Met at that particular time and thought to myself “Stress in the Police Force?  I’ll bloody tell him about stress in the Police Force” and replied to his letter.

Months went by and I’d heard nothing until one Friday, my wife got a message to me at work saying that the BBC had been on the on the phone and wanted to send a film crew round on the Monday morning to interview me for the programme.

It took about a nano-second for the penny to drop that in the middle of my angst, and convinced that the Beeb wouldn’t be interested in my story, I had spectacularly failed to ask the Met’s permission to take part in this programme.  I set about finding a guvnor, only to discover that there was a Service Funeral that day and the only senior officer I could find was a lonely Chief Inspector.

He was obviously a good, Bramshill-trained guvnor because his immediate reaction was “I can’t make a decision on this, I’ll have to find someone at Area”.

The end of my shift came, still no decision, Friday evening was looming and…….nothing.

Home I went still uncertain what I was supposed to do about Monday morning.

About 5 o’clock just as the missus was about to do dinner the phone rang. I answered the phone only to find a Deputy Assistant Commissioner on the other end.  Actually it was DAC Richard ‘Dickie’ Wells, a boss I actually had a lot of time for.  Having heard my side of the story he made an on-the-spot decision that I could not take part in the programme.

Plucking up as much bravado as I could muster on a Friday evening, I replied with “OK Sir, fair enough, but they also want to interview my wife and she’s not in the Job, she can say whatever the hell she likes”.   “I’ll call you back” responded Dickie.

About an hour later he called back and decided that he WOULD grant permission for me to take part in this documentary as long as I agreed for somebody from the Met’s Publicity Department to be present whilst it was filmed. To their eternal credit this lady did not interfere with as much as one single word.

The morning was spent interviewing me and Mrs Angry in our home and then I was whisked off to take part in a simulated counselling session in the afternoon.

Eventually the programme was aired and I got to see what other contributions had been made.  I was gobsmacked that SOME other Forces dealt with Stress far more proactively than the Mighty Met.

The one example that will always stay with me was the Bradford City Football Ground fire.  According to the officers interviewed for the programme the support shown to them by their Force  (West Yorkshire I believe) was First Class.

Four police officers, Police Constables David Britton and John Richard Ingham and Chief Inspectors Charles Frederick Mawson and Terence Michael Slocombe, and two spectators, Richard Gough and David Hustler, were awarded the Queen’s Gallantry Medal for their actions.  PCs Peter Donald Barrett and David Charles Midgley, along with spectators Michael William Bland and Timothy Peter Leigh received the Queen’s Commendation for Brave Conduct. In total, 28 police officers and 22 supporters, who were publicly documented as having saved at least one life, later received police commendations or bravery awards. Together, flanked by undocumented supporters, they managed to clear all but one person who made it to the front of the stand.

Not one single officer who took part in the programme was in any way critical of the support and counselling they had received from their Force in the aftermath of this tragedy.

The Met’s corporate reaction in those days is likely to have been something like “Right lad, see you for Early Turn tomorrow, but don’t worry if you ‘Do it in’ a bit”.

So what’s it like 25-30 years later?  I’m not awfully sure to be honest, but following on from a conversation with my reader I made a request of his/her home Force (difficult to tell who’s who with all these anon accounts).

I asked them two simple questions, the second of which was

Could you please inform me how many officers have been suffering
from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder as above within the last two
years, and how many of those have been Medically Retired?

They refused to answer on the grounds that

this data is not recorded on our systems in a way that can be easily abstracted because all periods of sickness are recorded on each individual’s personal record. This will be inclusive of psychological conditions such as anxiety, depression etc. To extract the information in response to your request, we would therefore need to review each relevant employee’s sickness record with a view to establishing what the symptoms and circumstances were.

and it would be too expensive to extract that data for me.

So there you have it, 2014, and at least one of Her Majesty’s Constabularies don’t actually know how many of their officers are suffering from Stress or PTSD.  That’s encouraging isn’t it.

If my reader wants me to ‘Name That Force’ and embarrass them I’m happy to do so, but their decision not mine.


8 thoughts on “Stress and PTSD

  1. Yes, great & timely post – esp. on “National Stress Awareness Day” – as many of the interesting FOI requests for the Met relating to treatment of their own staff do, funnily enough, appear to fall through the black hole called “data is not recorded on our systems in a way that can be easily abstracted”.

    Either the leadership/Home Office is stuck in the 19th century, resources to ensure staff receive reasonable &/or appropriate &/or precautionary care aren’t seen as a priority (no cost benefit? because no analysis?) or deliberate obfuscation hides a “keep out, none of your business” attitude..

    Surely the Home Office should, at a minimum, monitor those organisations under its aegis & identify any not upholding the duty of care they owe to their staff.

    If, for example, it’s fingers insist on lingering in the pie of police crime statistics (aren’t the figs from each force still collected, sent back if ‘questioned’, ‘filtered’ & only then sent on to the ONS?), the Home Office cannot argue that its influence over the way figures are chosen or collected or categorised or collated must be & is always hands-off.

    The Home Office ought surely to have at heart the health – both physical & mental – of all staff affected, especially indirectly, by its own decrees, guidance, diktat or orders etc.

    Why does the Home Office insist on retaining a ‘stake’ in the crime figures yet feel no compulsion to retain one for flesh & blood figures?

    “National Stress Awareness Day: Is the fear of social failure making us more anxious than ever?”

  2. One reason the police service appears reluctant to acknowledge stress as a ‘work-related’ issue is simply fear and a lack of understanding. Fear of litigation, usually via an employment tribunal; the potential for career and departmental damage.

    Now a few years ago before reaching retirment I reported sick with ‘work related stress’, as in my perception I was the victim of bullying by supervisors. Shortly after I found ‘work related stress’ was not an acceptable description for the official sickness form.

    Occupational Health (OH) offered a consultation, which the Federation advised “do not go alone” and it was very apparent the specialist nurse’s priority was not my helath, but a rapid return to work.

    Then for months I heard nothing from OH, later their explanation was that they simply sent appointment notices, reminders etc to my official e-mail address. Finally I was called in for an appointment with a consultant. When asked why OH had failed to be in contact he responded “Your file was lost”.

    How many times did my departmental senior officer call me over nine months? Once.

    I was placed on half-pay, a decision passed on by phone and no opportunity was given to present my case that my illness was ‘work related’.

    Only when I returned to work was a real counsellor’s services offered and the OH return to work administrator was great in helping.

    So did my employer exhibit proper care? No.

    • Sadly I have heard of other, similar, cases David. The Job just has to get its act together and concentrate more on the wellbeing of their prime assets and less on image or whether they’ll be sued. Maybe they’d be sued less often if they treated the troops properly in the first place.

  3. The Met, from my experience counselling was either non existent or when present, laughable. For example, I was on E/T at DD that morning in ’82 when the IRA bombed the Horseguards and then later that same morning the Royal Green Jackets in Regents Park. I with others attended both incidents. Counselling? Forget it, it was never considered not requested. Conversely in 2002 I was at an incident when a man was holed up in a Mosque threatening attendees with a knife. We attended and disarmed the man with no effort nor injury involved. The Job insisted on group counselling several days later (as if cops will open up in the company of others). The counsellors were two very young women with absolutely no life experience attempting to pass on their valuable book learned work on grizzled coppers. Laughable.
    In 30 years I never had counselling nor heard of anyone ever getting such. I could reel off dozens of critical incidents which I attended e.g. Balcombe Street, Iranian Embassy, Moorgate plus a plethora of mundane incidents like Fataccs, murders etc and although counselling was never offered, I never felt the need either. Perhaps we were made of tougher stuff then.

    • I think it comes back to The John Wayne Syndrome Alex. Not necessarily that we were made of tougher stuff, but ‘real men’ didn’t admit to needing any counselling or support. You had to deal with whatever the day threw your way because there was nobody else, and that experience toughened us. As for group counselling, as you say, forget, would never get off the ground in any meaningful way.

  4. I appreciate that some people may feel that they do not suffer from stress at work so long as they recognise that many of their colleagues do (and that they are no less good police officers because of it).

    Many colleagues who would never talk about feeling stressed will be living their lives in ways that showed that they were still struggling whether through gambling addiction, unhealthy sexual behaviour, violence eiether at work or in their relationships or drinking and/or drugs.

    I don’t think there are easy solutions but for a start making sure that officers know that work related stress is far more common and more importantly they are not alone in feeling that way. I remember sitting in a team meeting and a senior officer told his team about the stress he had been suffering and that he had needed time off to cope, I remember clearly the feeling in the room of people relaxing and the respect we felt for him for being so honest and showing that he trusted us as fellow officers.

    Finally. on the organsational side, no easy answers but, and this is just my opinion, just as much as we don’t talk about stress, I don’t think we remind supervisors, managers and yes HR of the ongoing need for a duty of care in the workplace.We should keep placing it front and centre when issues of officer behaviour and morale arise

    We need to keep speaking about these issues, so thank you Alan for your blog.

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