Austerity and trauma in policing

On Wednesday, we hosted a @WeCops chat on how austerity had affected policing. We set the questions looking at how it was affecting the service, the organisation and finally, the police officers and staff themselves. It was a busy chat, with many practitioners getting involved, and it was even joined by some partners and members of the public who had experienced changes in the way we police.

The chat is recorded here, listed with all the participants, the tweets themselves, and some of the bio details of who got involved. You can click into the tweets and find practitioners who took part, along with their views just below in all the tweets collected via the WeCops hashtag #WeCops. All of our chats are recorded this way, so if you want to have a look through the archive they are all there and accessible for reading, study or even academic analysis. It’s really a potted history of how practitioners feel about a particular subject, at a moment of time, and can clearly illustrate both strong feelings and operational understanding or perspective.

There were distinct themes that came out of the chat. The first two questions discussed changes in demand, with greater exposure to work involving mental health. This was discussed in the context of ‘catching’ work from other services, who are also clearly suffering the effects of austerity themselves. As pointed out by one tweeter, this is a far-cry from the ‘single minded crime fighter’ discussed by Theresa May in 2011. It also sets the scene for what is – for some – a somewhat unwelcome shift in police identity. If officers join to catch bad guys and send offenders to jail, what starts to happen when that which genuinely made up a significant proportion of the work is replaced by spending hours on end waiting in A&E departments?

This concern was also given some support as practitioners discussed rising difficulty when it comes to staff retention. Great officers are leaving the service, and although it’s very difficult to directly point the finger at austerity, it’s very clear that there has been a huge effect on working conditions and the level of workload carried over the last eight years.

When deciding on the questions, it was clear that the content of the chat was going to be quite negative, but it is always necessary to look at both sides of the argument in any case. Sharing these tweets tries to ensure there is some critical thought about what austerity has achieved, however out of balance the results have been. Practitioners did discuss how some technical innovation had been forced by austerity, as less patrols had meant smarter deployment and technology to be used by officers at scene. There are tangible benefits of better technology for frontline officers – these aren’t just gadgets. They are tools that can help reduce stress and anxiety, also reducing waste as officers are usually constantly shifted from station to scene to victim. Ultimately, mobile tech can mean the difference between going home on time, and losing those vital hours with family at the end of your tour.

Volunteers were also discussed as having been afforded far more organisational time for better appreciation and deployment. Officers will always argue that they may take the place of full time employed alternatives, and whilst this may be case, it is difficult to state that the service made best use of those willing to give up their free time for public service prior to austerity.

The final question asked how austerity had affected officers personally. This drew a whole range of answers from higher stress through to a general need for better quality leadership and greater autonomy and empowerment. I love questions like this, as they force reflection, and this came out from participant’s tweets. Some officers stated that although there may be a higher workload, it was still the ‘best job in the world,’ or that it is the public service ethic that keeps them going, despite all the external changes:

Moving from the chat and into the next part of this blog that discusses trauma relies nicely on the content of the above quoted tweet. Our service relies heavily on that ’emotional investment’ that officers and staff provide. In academia it can be discussed as ‘discretionary effort.’ The term itself has been discussed critically on social media, as it assumes that putting more in than you ‘should’ leads to a reliance on essentially what could be considered as ‘overwork.’ This isn’t quite what is meant from the term, but as there is a lack of information out there about what it means it is easy to see how it can be construed that way.

Discretionary effort is effort that is applied because you want to apply it. It is the difference between taking on a crime and doing what is necessary by policy, and doing what you feel is right. A good example may be an officer encountering a vulnerable victim in the course of their duty who has been clearly deeply affected by their brush with crime. The system says the officer should ring them every thirty days, the officer thinks they need very regular contact and support to get them through their experience. Discretionary effort is that extra visit to see them, those extra returned calls to reassure them, or the odd note to let them know what is going on: it is the difference between a required service, and a caring one.

If you have ever worked in public service, you will see this effort everywhere, the problem is that as the environment changes, leadership doesn’t adapt, and busyness overtakes that space that we once had, it is far, far harder to bring that effort to the fore. Even more so, if trauma exists in practitioners.

This week, Lancashire Constabulary held host to their first trauma event for first and second line managers. Dr. Noreen Tehrani discussed with practitioners how to see post traumatic stress disorder in their staff and themselves, how to begin to offer support and some help, and what level of support is needed from the organisation. I shared some of the slides in this thread if you want to take a look.


So how does austerity and PTSD mix? This is an important question, and it’s one which is often not discussed.

Austerity has caused individual workload to rise, the nature of work to change, and the general level of work based support to drop (most forces have been forced to cut back office support functions). This creates a cauldron of negative pressures for frontline officers. Not only do they have to cope with increased work, but they are also faced with a switch in their mission and lower levels of organisational support.

Forces have had to cope with changes in training need (the huge volume of mental health incidents for example) with fewer training resources. Forces have also had to cope with higher levels of stress in officers and staff, with lower levels of funding to assist them. And forces have had to cope with officers and staff struggling to motivate themselves as the reason that they joined is slowly becoming a poor relative to what is essentially a strange mix of coercive social work and raised personal safety risk from changes in terrorist tactics. As @iofiv put it, a form of ‘Paramilitary social work.’


Fighting against this switch in demand is far from easy. The other agencies who were first port of call for much of this work have been cut to the quick, and we have legislative responsibility, on top of morale responsibility to act upon. If we are to preserve life, how can we with good conscience state, ‘That’s a job for the Crisis Team,’ knowing full well that the ‘Crisis Team‘ is one member of staff on county cover? It is a job for those in senior positions in the service to push back hard against this ‘gap’ in service provision, but whilst the gap exists, servicing it may be painful but necessary.

This doesn’t mean that we become a service that doesn’t say no, we just say no in the right place, with the right information, and to the right people. It’s important that we don’t say no to victims or sufferers; they aren’t the people that created this situation, just those that are unfortunately reaping the outcomes of it 😦

Aside from the demand shift, the repeated, increased exposure to higher workloads becomes a ticking time bomb. The service has always hidden trauma within its ranks. It is not rational to discuss trauma as something that is ‘new.’ In the past, when there was capacity in the service, those suffering were probably found a role to alleviate its affect, or shifted because they had become to ‘difficult to manage.’ There was space for these people, and we could accommodate support in many places of the organisation, even if it often wasn’t viewed as ‘good value for money’ by those counting the beans. There were also some slightly unsavoury practices that probably counted as coping mechanisms such as officers frequenting the bar after work for ‘two or three‘, or forming immensely strong social bonds with the teams in which they work. As those social provisions have lessened or disappeared completely, so have the opportunities for social ‘defusing’, a vital part of coping with trauma.

Chief Constable Andy Rhodes believes that we are comparatively late to begin to address trauma in our organisations, and made a point of discussing the military’s approach in contrast. He was vocal about policing needing to up its game.

So, how do officers cope now? Some literature points towards higher levels of self-medicating (drinking alcohol, poor food choices, prescription medication), others towards rising levels of debt amongst police officers. It goes without saying that there is probably rising levels of Leavism (taking leave instead of time off sick) and Presenteeism (coming into work despite being ill), sleep deprivation, and this is on top of rising levels of long term sickness across the service. Throw in recent surveys on morale from the Police Federation and mental health from the Police Dependents Trust and the content of this story becomes very, very challenging.

If forces do not grasp the nettle, austerity will continue to cause the steady build of trauma, higher workloads will remain, and lower organisational/social support will be the result of necessary budget constraint. It becomes a recipe with horrific ramifications. Discretionary effort may keep the wheel on that little bit longer than it should, but without decision making that seeks to actively address workforce wellbeing, and investment that isn’t just in officer and staff numbers, what will begin to put a halt to the development of growing threat to the health of emergency service workers?

The responsibility to stem this tide doesn’t just come from outside the service. We all hold some personal responsibility for our mental health, and understanding what is happening to us and around us is something we can never outsource. Despite austerity, trust in the service remains high, and this is testament to the amazing people that make up our organisations all around the country. But, as austerity continues, the risk continues to rise within our service, and individuals will be the casualties. These people are our colleagues, our supervisors, our team. In the face of this threat, we must do what the police force is good at, and that is rise to the challenge.


If you took part in the @WeCops chat then thank you, and please continue contributing. If not, make sure that you follow the account and keep an eye out for subjects that interest you. It may even be the case that social media begins to fill some of that ‘social’ hole that has become so vastly reduced following eight years of sustained cuts. Twitter may not be the most accepting of places sometimes, but it may have become a depository of officer’s feelings, insights and interactions. It may just have become the new ‘canteen…’ (as discussed by @IanHesky and @EmWilliamsCCCU) In times of austerity, being kind has never been more important. That tweet that cuts, have a thought, that person may be using social media to cope.


If anything discussed in this blog raises concern, or the connected tweets discussing trauma have raised feelings or possibly helped you identify some feelings/experiences in your life, please make sure that you reach out and get some help. Mind is a wonderful charity for advice, as is the Police Dependent Trust , just don’t suffer in silence. If you represent an organisation seeking to up its game in wellbeing, please check out Oscar Kilo here


One thought on “Austerity and trauma in policing

  1. Thanks for posting this. I don’t know whether you heard it (it’s still online) but earlier this year Alvin Hall, the broadcaster, had a two part documentary on Radio Four called the Double War, which looked at the impact of the Vietnam War on black veterans who served. In the course of the programme Alvin speaks with a PTSD Doctor who has been carrying out a longitudinal study for the past forty years on PTSD in all conflict veterans and he stated that one of the dominant risk factors in both getting and recovering from PTSD is educational attainment and that risks of PTSD from someone who did poorly at school were five times greater than people who had a degree. Given this I believe that it is vital that, either PFEW, the Supts Assoc and the College or ideally all three, commence collecting the data for a similar longitudinal study identifying risk and protective factors for UK emergency responders and that, bearing in mind many of the police service have a blind antipathy to good education; greater emphasis is given to proper educational support for police officers and greater emphasis on recruiting people with good educational attainment.


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