Are we approaching workplace stress the wrong way?
by John Nelson
Chair, National Police Autism Association
The last couple of years have seen an increased recognition of the importance of staff welfare within policing. As a service, we are now far more aware of the effects of stress: in years gone by, an officer struggling with the after-effects of a fatality or other traumatic incident might be offered nothing more than a stiff drink in the bar after work; today, Forces offer trauma risk management (TRiM) and access to counselling as standard. The launch of the Oscar Kilo wellbeing portal in 2017 and the Police Federation’s successful ‘Protect the Protectors’ campaign reflect a more enlightened approach to wellbeing within the emergency services.
The focus on dealing with traumatic events tends to overlook another source of stress, and one that particularly affects staff with a neurodiverse condition such as autism, ADHD or dyslexia: day-to-day wellbeing. As a support group, we are often contacted by officers and staff who, for one reason or another, are not having a happy time at work; these reasons usually boil down to basic needs not being met. Despite our improved understanding of wellbeing, the police service is still something of a ‘one size fits all’ culture: as a warranted officer, you’re expected to work anywhere, in any core role, and perform to the same high standard. (Police staff are typically limited to their chosen role but may still be subject to widely varying working environments.) This approach doesn’t always work for everyone, and it especially doesn’t work for staff with hidden conditions and disabilities.
Take the station report writing room, for example – the place where officers start and finish each shift and get case files and paperwork done. With the move to larger police stations, officers are now likely to find themselves working in open-plan offices – sharing facilities with 20 or 30 colleagues at a time is not uncommon. Open-plan offices tend to be noisy – whilst some people might find a certain amount of background noise invigorating and most are are able to block out distractions, staff with sensory sensitivities typical of autism spectrum conditions may find constant background noise and interruptions intolerable and a significant barrier to performance. A supervisor may be sympathetic and willing to consider a reasonable adjustment such as a change of location or finding an officer a quiet room to work in; however all too often such accommodations can be seen as a nuisance (“Everyone else manages, why can’t you?”) or refused outright. What happens next varies, but is never good: if the officer’s performance dips below the minimum, performance management measures may be implemented; this is usually the point at which the officer takes sick leave suffering from stress and we are approached for help. Insisting on reasonable adjustments can sometimes lead to a stand-off between the officer, Occupational Health and local management, the latter being under no obligation to follow recommendations made by healthcare professionals. Even if line managers are willing to accommodate a change in working environment, such accommodations are sometimes made grudgingly, which will negatively impact on the officer’s career development. Or the officer may struggle on, managing to keep their performance above the minimum but coming into work unhappy and resentful every day – hardly a good place to be, and with obvious negative effects on resilience and long-term health.
Another factor which is arguably true for everyone, and especially to neurodiverse staff, is of square pegs not fitting into round holes. People with neurodiverse conditions tend to excel in certain roles and environments and struggle with others – for instance, an officer on the autism spectrum may thrive in a neighbourhoods role, where the focus is on solo working and long-term problem-solving; an officer with ADHD on the other hand may find the constant stimulation of a response role a better fit. Unfortunately there is no pathway for such career preferences to be accommodated, outside of recognised specialisations such as CID; if an officer is unlucky enough to find themselves in the ‘wrong hole’, the only way out may be through requesting a move as a reasonable adjustment, which may only be granted as a means of getting the officer back to work from sick leave. Some managers are more accommodating than others, but this is hardly ideal – our position is that this vital facet of wellbeing should not be a spin of the roulette wheel.
Along with culture, a barrier to wellbeing is austerity – with officers at all ranks being expected to achieve more with less, it is all to easy to view an officer who struggles as a ‘problem child’ (a term that unfortunately is still bandied about in policing circles). Managing resources, performance and sickness tends to fall to local District Commanders – these mid-level managers spend a good deal of time juggling team numbers on their office whiteboards, and with staffing levels constantly at minimum or below minimum, it’s easy to see why an officer requesting a transfer to different location or role would not be seen favourably as a potential high performer. The ‘immoveable object’ behind all of this is the Equality Act: employment law does not recognise that providing reasonable adjustments to disabled staff may ‘upset the numbers’ or be too costly. The ultimate result of getting this wrong is the Force being taken to an employment tribunal – a failure for everyone involved, regardless of outcome.
It’s hard to talk about the importance of wellbeing without looking at what can happen if it’s neglected, but I would like to focus on the positives. Neurodiverse officers and staff who overcome the odds to find their niche can be capable of great things – take for example Detective Inspector Warren Hines, Chief Inspector Nigel Colston and Inspector Kaj Bartlett, senior officers who have forged careers around their strengths arising from autism and ADHD. One of the most satisfying aspects of my role as NPAA Chair is being able to point potential neurodivergent officers to the Media Centre page on our website, where they be can be inspired to turn what many view as a negative into a positive.
I’m often asked what changes I would like to see in the future. An important change for our members would be for officers of all ranks to understand the importance of day-to-day wellbeing rather than just managing trauma, and to recognise that a small expenditure on effort, time and money can make a big difference in getting the best from our staff and giving our best to the public. ∎