In the first in a series of articles exploring the challenges in dealing with stress and trauma on the front line, Dr Ian Hesketh and Dr Noreen Tehrani examine the psychological risks faced by the officers and staff who provide a first response to incidents and events.
In a series of three articles we will explore the current challenges faced by the UK police in relation to trauma exposure and psychological risk management. Although these are not new concepts, the frequency and gravity of incidents facing the service are unprecedented, and thus we feel are worthy of discussion. The purpose of these articles is to raise awareness, and equip officers and staff with information to help them when the need arises. To create a framework for these articles we will explore the risks and responses in three policing areas. In this, the first part, we will focus on the largest group within the police population the officers and staff who provide a first response to incidents and events. These typical policing duties can regularly expose officers and staff to the scene of a murder, suicide, road traffic collision or sudden death. In the second article we will explore the role of police specialists, some of whom undertake roles such as dealing with domestic violence, child abuse, counter terrorism, firearms, undercover work and road death investigations. Finally, we will look at the officers and staff involved in handling a disaster response, as a responder or in a specialist role. Landscape Firstly, let us set the scene. The UK police service has rarely experienced a time when there has been such a high a level of sustained pressure and demand. Police inhabit a world where there is need for a constant state of hyper-arousal, where they are alert to the smallest indication of a potential hazardous situation. This pressure to remain in a constant vigilant state, while challenging and exciting, can lead to psychological exhaustion and burnout. Currently, there are exceptionally high levels of burnout at all levels in the UK police service. Organisationally, there are significant changes taking place to the way policing is being delivered in terms of the structures, targets and service delivery. These radical changes are being brought about by the need to continually improve performance while reducing budgets. The speed at which change is taking place means that much of the fine tuning and adjustments of necessity are being identified by the front line, who must find ways to make the new systems and processes work. Finally, there has been extraordinary social change over the past decade. The increasing use of the internet and social media, the changes in the age of retirement and pension rights, increases in online child abuse, sexting and trafficking have made this a difficult time to manage; personally and organisationally. One of the consequences of embracing evidence-based policing is that valid and reliable surveys of the police workforce have reported increased levels of stress, traumatic stress and burnout. This has been caused by the difficulties faced in dealing with the demands put on them by their role in society. In this series we will examine four working dimensions that may help make sense of the new working paradigm, assisting officers and staff in making sense of their working life by: 1.Identifying the psychological risks faced in policing; 2.Describing those who may be directly or indirectly affected; 3.Selecting an approach to reducing the risks and mitigating the impact; and 4.Monitoring and evaluating the interventions. Identifying risks The Home Office Police Workforce report of 2017 noted there were 2,358 full time equivalent officers on long-term sick leave in England and Wales (March 2017), 4,426 on recuperative duties and 4,111 in adjusted/restricted duty posts. This does not include short and medium-term sickness, presenteeism (coming to work while unwell) or leaveism (taking annual leave, flexi-time or compensatory time off when sick). In the past, most of this sickness absence would be related to physical conditions such as muscular-skeletal injuries. However, today there are increasing numbers of officers off work due to mental health conditions. The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) stress mana