Latest on Police well-being research

Policing can be stressful! There are increasingly complex demands placed upon police professionals, with long hours, high levels of accountability and too  often the threat of conflict and violence. So it’s right that well-being is being treated more seriously in policing. It’s not just about trying to respond to colleagues when things have wrong, although that remains vital, but it’s also now about getting proactive in raising awareness, removing stigma in telling someone, and addressing workplace culture.

EMPAC is proud to be able to update you here on some ongoing research, and some research ambitions for the future. Support by the Blue Light Champion network means there is already early benefit to the East Midlands policing and beyond. Get involved in the research – it can make a difference! If any of the issues discussed here are of interest we’ve included direct contact details so you can follow up and get involved right away!

Let’s start with Professor John Groeger, a psychologist with a dream job – he’s a specialist in understanding sleep.

John has been working via the Blue Light Champion network to survey police professionals to better understand sleep patterns, and assess any potential health impacts due to things like shift work. Professor Groeger has used standardised psychometric measures, with an initial sample size of 400. He has been exploring the significance of police professional’s work environment using the Copenhagen measure.

The Copenhagen Psychosocial Questionnaire (COPSOQ-II), is a well established tool that has been developed since its origin in 1997 in Denmark. This is a self-reporting 128 item survey approach that takes into consideration multiple factors, all relevant  to possible stress indicators.

John’s research is using the survey to look into measures of perceived stress and  anxiety, through the lens of things like activity levels, shift work patterns, home circumstances, any existing health conditions and food consumption using an Healthy Eating Index. 

The research is ongoing and academic journal articles pending. One of the useful applications that could emerge is in informing predictive factors for poor sleep, and the interconnections with lack of sleep and workplace anxiety and stress.

There’s already some headline points we can be aware of – that shift work for some can have a negative impact on quality sleep and therefore possibly on long term health. None of us are the same so we can react differently, but the lack of sleeping at night is bad for us overall, over time. Our Circadian sleep rhythm explains some of the science of sleep – you can access more information about your own sleep health here at the Sleep Foundation web:-

Blue Light Champions are interested in such emerging research so they can try and help their colleagues – so that means for now to encourage healthy eating habits, avoiding alcohol to try and encourage sleep – the evidence shows that doesn’t work well! – and use practical things like eye masks to simulate night sleep if night shift work means having to sleep in the day. Are we sleepwalking into a blue-light health crisis?

Contact Professor John Groeger at:-

Next, let’s take a look at some of the work of Dr Tom Cockcroft and Dr Katie Dhingra, from Leeds School of Social Sciences. The focus here is on mental health, as there are currently gaps on police mental health data. some of the contextual challenges for such research is trying to better understand the pressures of divulging issues, because of possible stigma. Tom and Katie are therefore interested to see to what extent they can understand the current situation by dong an anonymous and en masse survey. What is the aggregated data picture of police mental health?

Bringing this issue to life for the East Midlands, take a look at the news report and video here of a Derbyshire Constabulary officer describing the loneliness and stigma he battled with during his decision to divulge how he was feeling:-

The researchers intend to explore the role of line managers, Human Resources and even the culture of the workplace to map out the extent of the issues and assess casual factors. The Blue Light Champion network is supporting this research as they recognise that there is a form of stigma around perceived weakness and reporting mental health, when in fact it takes a lot of courage. It’s OK not to feel OK.

People feeling worried about mental health disclosure is a big problem; it’s often fuelled by a perception of work and social repercussions. That is not only a barrier to getting early help but also participating in some research to better understand the bigger picture. For the future there needs to be more role specific findings that differentiate between officers and staff for example, that then informs more more precise and specific interventions to help.

Contact Dr Tom Cockcroft at:-

Contact Dr Katie Dhingra at:-

Next, we take a look at some of the ongoing research need being promoted by Professor Peter Kawalek, from the Centre for Information Management,
at Loughborough University. Professor Kawalek has an ambition to take wellbeing research into policing to a whole new level. Peter is influenced in his thinking by Dr Tim Cantopher, a consultant psychiatrist with the Priory Group of Hospitals. Depressive Illness: The Curse of the Strong (2012) is Dr Cantopher’s second, and most recent, book and Peter is interested in how the police workplace  culture relies on the ‘over & above’ effort of officers and staff. Inevitably, he says, this surely passes on a cost to them and their families; paid for in their well-being.

Policing performance of course is important, but Professor Kawalek makes the point that peak performance is ‘acute’; like athletes or zebra, you cannot run all day everyday.  The research of the future, using the biological markers, could expose and measure what’s going on inside a person. hat’s the wear and tear, for example, of the past three months of a police officer’s working life. How might that in turn affect life expectancy?

What mark did that shooting incident leave? What about the bad atmosphere in team x, is that adding to the ‘miles on the clock?’ There are existing biological based techniques that could help understand the pressures upon policing, something that Professor Kawalek has explained  to the Superintendent’s Association. And there’s growing interest into the potential of national research about all of this, maybe building on the existing strong population data already available at Glasgow, to better understand how policing professionals are, or aren’t coping.

Contact Professor Peter Kawalek at:-

Finally, building on existing research on Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), Associate Professor Andy Newton of Nottingham Trent University, has also been working with the Blue Light Champions to help inform protecting police professionals.

Although what we now know to be PTSD has no doubt been around for a long, long time, it was officially recognised by the American Psychiatric Association in 1980. it can develop following exposure to an incident like a traffic collision, attending child abuse or suicide incidents – there are so many instances in policing it would be hard to list them all. The big concern is that the effects can be long-term and can even lead to a higher risk of self-harm or even suicide. 

Some if the most common symptoms of PTSD are:

  • Intense feelings of distress when reminded of a tragic event
  • Extreme physical reactions to reminders of trauma such as a nausea, sweating or a pounding heart
  • Invasive, upsetting memories of a tragedy
  • Flashbacks (feeling like the trauma is happening again)
  • Nightmares of either frightening things or of the event
  • Loss of interest in life and daily activities
  • Feeling emotionally numb and detached from other people
  • Sense of a not leading a normal life (not having a positive outlook of your future)
  • Avoiding certain activities, feelings, thoughts or places that remind you of the tragedy
  • Difficulty remembering important aspects of a tragic event

The current evidence-base identifies certain ‘more at risk’ professions  and that list includes firefighters, ambulance personnel, health care professionals, divers, and you guessed it, police professionals.

The good news is that intervention can help, such as through Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR), a form of psychotherapy. But for intervention there needs to be a robust proactive outlook for possible cases  and a good awareness of symptoms, factors and triggers. Andy has been working with the Blue Light Champion network to better understand the current levels of awareness, and thinking through the implications and possible recommendations for the future.

The research here used a questionnaire with 271 respondents; with a good  mixture of sex, role, age and time served. The survey looked into the awareness of PTSD amongst police professionals, and surprisingly quite high numbers reported either their own diagnosis with the condition (10%) and 40% reported knowing someone with the condition. A sign of progress came through in the point that male ‘bravado’ may be on the decrease – that’s a good thing if it means males don’t unwittingly get ill through a sense they need to be ‘invincible’.

Reviewing existing training inputs has already started, in order to best raise early awareness, for example amongst new recruits. The thinking around raised awareness is that risk factors can be more explicit and early intervention can be put in place quicker and more effectively.

In terms of using the research to inform policy and practice, there is an ongoing campaign now to try and get mental health awareness on the same footing as first aid in the workplace, and ensure there are specially trained personnel on hand at all times. Such a change would require new legislation to update Health and Safety regulations.

Here is a link to Oscar Kilo, the national Police Wellbeing Service (NPWS), which was launched in April 2019. The NPWS work closely with the National Police Chief’s Council, the College of Policing and Home Office – you can read all about them here:-

And there are further links here to relevant parts of the Police Federation and College of Policing web resources:-

Contact Associate Professor Andy Newton

You can find out more about Blue Light Champions here:-

Main picture (left to right) Professor John Groeger; Police and Crime Commissioner Hardyal Dhindsa (national lead on mental health); Blue Light Champion Natasha Sagar; Dr Katie Dhingra; Dr Tom Cockcroft


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