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Police Occupational Health: Support for Specialist Postholders, Where There is Constant Specific Repetitive Exposure, and Staff Involved in Prolonged Incidents/Enquiries 2005-2006 - Research Findings

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Claire Fyvie, Gill Moreton, Maggie Gray, Roslyn Law and Chris Freeman

Some police forces have introduced policies and interventions for their staff in order to help them cope with the emotional and psychological consequences of specific incidents and events which are an unavoidable part of police work. However, little is known about possible preventative measures that might be taken to lessen the risks associated with long-term exposure to potentially damaging police work.

Main Findings

  • A literature search revealed that the existing evidence base for good practice in terms of support for specialist postholders is inconsistent and inconclusive.
  • The wider literature on police stress suggests that occupational stressors can usefully be categorised as either organisational or operational, and indicates that the major sources of police stress have been found to be organisational in nature.
  • The survey of current practice among Scottish police forces found considerable variation between forces in the recognition of stress-related problems and in the resources that were allocated to remedial strategies.
  • Preferred interventions included occupational health and welfare schemes, professional counselling services, and peer counselling. Few attempts at preventative action were in evidence; none of the interventions aimed at specialist postholders had reportedly been initiated on the basis of empirical evidence; and very few were being evaluated in terms of their cost-effectiveness.
  • The survey found that organisational stressors were perceived to be the most common source of stress. Although the operational duties specific to specialist postholders were not generally seen as a major source of stress, incidents involving children or situations where events were interpreted as having high personal relevance, were identified as potential sources of stress.
  • The survey identified a number of factors that appeared to act in a protective way to keep most specialist postholders well.

Background

In January 2005 the Scottish Executive Justice Department commissioned the Rivers Centre for Traumatic Stress to carry out a study to identify and develop pro-active measures Scottish police forces could implement to mitigate the psychological effects of repeated or prolonged exposure to traumatic stressors among their specialist postholders.

The specific aims of the study were:

  • An examination of the existing research evidence base relating to preventative strategies as they apply to police specialist postholders;
  • A review of current practice among police forces throughout Scotland;
  • The development of a strategy that will enable Scottish police forces to move towards best practice.

Methods

The research methods consisted of: a literature review and expert consultation; a survey of Scottish police forces including individual interviews with key members of each force and focus groups involving a range of specialist postholders from each force; and scrutiny of force occupational health data.

Literature review

The review of the published literature on police occupational stress revealed an extensive array of strategies aimed at mitigating the effects of job-related stress, most of which focused on the individual employee. Very few were aimed specifically at specialist postholders and systematic evaluation of these interventions was rare. In the absence of a consistent and conclusive evidence base, strategies aimed at addressing occupational stress in UK police forces appeared to have developed in an ad hoc and arbitrary fashion.

The wider literature on police stress among non-specialist postholders indicated that police stressors could usefully be categorised as either organisational or operational in their nature, with operational stressors generally subdivided into three types: "routine", "traumatic" and "vicarious". Contrary to conventional wisdom, the literature consistently suggested that the major sources of police stress were not operational, but were organisational, with human relations, personnel management, the organisation of work and the structure of the police organisation itself, being regularly identified as the most common sources of occupational stress.

Survey

A total of 148 officers and support staff from eight Scottish police forces were interviewed in the course of the study. Considerable variation was found between forces in the recognition of stress-related problems and in the resources, both financial and personnel-related, that were allocated to remedial strategies. Preferred interventions included occupational health and welfare schemes, professional counselling services, and peer counselling. Few attempts at preventative action were in evidence; none of the interventions aimed at specialist postholders had reportedly been initiated on the basis of empirical evidence; and very few were being evaluated in terms of their cost-effectiveness.

The most common sources of stress for specialist postholders were perceived to be factors that are common to most organisations: excessive workloads and long hours; poor management styles; a lack of reward and recognition for good work; and an inflexible organisational culture.

Organisational stressors that were specific to the police included geographical transfers and the multi-tasking found in small or rural forces. Stressors whose source was external to the police organisation included unrealistic societal expectations and perceptions of an unfair criminal justice system. Intra-individual sources of stress were similar to those cited in studies of non-specialist postholders, namely an inability to disengage with work, and domestic and financial problems. In common with the findings of other studies, incidents involving children or situations where events were interpreted as having high personal relevance were consistently highlighted as major sources of potential stress. With regard to the specific duties of specialist postholders, few saw these as being a major source of stress and most referred to the significantly greater levels of exposure to stress experienced by their front-line colleagues.

Asked to identify factors that kept specialist postholders well, interviewees consistently described the protective role of the teams within which they operated. Most worked within close-knit, relatively small units, where there was a strong sense of camaraderie and high levels of inter-individual communication. Peer support was commonly thought to be highly effective, informal debriefs were often part of everyday routine, and shift banter and black humour were defusing mechanisms regularly used by specialist team members.

Crucially, specialist postholders said they had volunteered for their posts and as a self selected group they generally appeared to be highly motivated. Most expressed high levels of job satisfaction and a belief that the work they were doing was worthwhile. They believed their specialist training had prepared them well for their work and the majority felt they had had realistic expectations of the job before they took up post. Most interviewees described a process of "battle hardening" that occurred in specialist postholders, allowing them to interpret the majority of events in an emotionally neutral way. Although postholders did not deny that they often found their work unpleasant and distressing, their distaste and distress did not reportedly translate into psychological ill-health.

Key recommendations

  • The occupational health of police staff should be re-conceptualised in terms of "organisational" and "operational" stressors.
  • Organisational stressors and "routine" operational stressors are likely to be best served by improvements in organisational and management practices, training programmes, informal support mechanisms, and peer-based schemes.
  • "Traumatic" and "vicarious" stressors will most likely produce psychological reactions such as anxiety, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder, that are best dealt with by professional specialist clinicians.
  • A comprehensive occupational stress strategy should have the organisational practices of the police force at its core, with a focus on improving leadership and management styles, as well as the organisational structures and processes that underpin the police culture.
  • Forces are advised to review the general training they provide to all first-line managers, and to develop in-house and national training programmes that can address the challenges specific to the management of specialist posts. It is recommended that managers in charge of specialist units should receive training that specifically addresses the management issues unique to each unit.
  • Standardised data sets should be regularly and routinely collected for each individual staff member, linking activity records, absence rates, and operational role.
  • There is a dearth of empirical evidence on the clinical and cost-effectiveness of interventions, particularly those of a preventative nature. Further research studies are required, using scientifically rigorous methods, to develop an evidence base that can guide best practice in the future.
  • Existing interventions should be systematically evaluated in terms of their clinical and cost-effectiveness.
  • There may be some variation in forces but the staff believed to be at highest risk of developing secondary traumatic stress reactions work in: Family/Child Protection, Family Liaison, Domestic Abuse, Computer Forensics and Sex Offender Units. Staff working in these areas should be made aware of the risks of vicarious traumatisation, the impact of exposure should be monitored, and specialist clinical services should be made available to those who develop secondary traumatic stress reactions.
  • Specialist postholders exposed to violence or the threat of violence, such as Firearms officers, Test Purchase Officers or other undercover officers, may be at greater risk than their colleagues of developing traumatic stress reactions. They should be made aware of this potential risk, the impact of exposure should be monitored, and specialist clinical services should be made available to those who develop traumatic stress reactions.
  • Specific attention should be given to specialist postholders operating in the absence of the protective factors identified in the course of this study. Such postholders include staff working on their own in isolated rural postings, those who have just left specialist posts to return to uniformed duties and staff who have retired from specialist posts.
  • The results of this study suggest that civilian staff and officers working in specialist units are exposed to similar sources of stress. Civilian staff may be particularly vulnerable due to an absence of protective factors and should have access to the same level of support services as specialist police officers.

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