A personal view on mental ill-health

To mark Mental Health Awareness Week, Police Superintendents’ Association Disability Lead Superintendent Paul Burrows reflects on his own mental health journey and provides advice and insight on supporting those in the workplace who may need help

The adage that ‘what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger’ is powerful and poignant.

Supt Paul Burrows

We hear so much in the media about those who are taking a break from sport, the arts or just life in general to reflect upon their mental wellbeing. Having recently been on this journey I thought there might be some beneficial insights I could provide to those who are perhaps fortunate enough not to have been such a traveller. Or perhaps validation to those who have like me, travelled. I am stronger but changed. I now, for example, have a new definition of ‘good friend’ – it is someone who looked out for me and helped me realise they cared and that people cared about me. Perhaps these words will engender more good friends?

I have no doubt that there may be some cynicism about wellbeing breaks. They can come across as being ‘de rigueur’. However, through lived experience I can vouch for the importance of looking after one’s mental health before you get to crises. This wellbeing MOT is critical. But how do you realise you need to do this? Are you failing to sleep? Being incredibly tired at work, or even falling asleep? Are you irritable and having arguments – usually at home? Suffering from palpitations? Light-headed? Demonstrating road rage? Not taking breaks or your rest days? Always thinking about work, even on holiday?

The reasons I struggled with my own mental health (I really don’t like the term ‘illness’, though someone far cleverer than me will no doubt explain that it is an illness), are many and varied and deeply personal. The underlying factor was burnout, the second was conversations which, because of my own neurodivergence, I failed to contextualise. These were the first dominos.

Also, as a Strategic Firearms Commander (SFC), Advanced Public Order Commander (APOC) and on-call Superintendent, I worked many additional shifts which meant I rarely got the rest I needed. I am not unique. This burnout exacerbated other events and conversations that tipped me over the edge to amongst other things, a marriage breakdown.

You don’t want to get to where I was, so hopefully these few words may halt a slide.

I am the PSA disability reserved representative and have been open about my own autism. Whilst off work sick, I continually asked myself the question of whether I was creating my own self-fulfilling prophecy. The statistics speak for themselves: in the UK, 66% of autistic adults have thought about taking their own lives, and 35% have attempted suicide. Around 1% of people in the UK are autistic, yet 15% of people hospitalised after attempting suicide have an autism diagnosis. If you reflect upon how many of your own team have a diagnosis or consider themselves to be autistic, it might well be worth looking at your long-term sickness figures for anxiety and depression in a different way. I also pose the question: do you know who your team is? Our role as managers is critical – what are we missing that is hiding in plain sight? Do we foster relationships that are genuine and sincere? The number of conversations I have had with neurodivergent colleagues from other Forces would suggest these relationships sometimes still need to be built. Otherwise, individuals are left questioning their own self-worth.

Having been away from work, I am stronger for my experience, but changed; and changed quite fundamentally. It is for this reason that I write about my journey in the hope that it may help someone either by ensuring they or perhaps even you get the support needed.

So, what have I learned?

The first thing is that it must be accepted that you are not well, and that support is required. Unfortunately, the crises can bite you before you consciously accept this fact. Look out for the triggers. I had many but didn’t realise what they were. I was told I looked grey, but this was only said to me when I came back to work. I didn’t take my rest days in lieu (RDILs) after working on-call as I needed to be at that meeting; I didn’t take my 11 hour break between shifts entitlement because I needed to be at work. I constantly checked my emails when off duty. Really?

So, what is the first step?

A good friend of mine who had his own period off sick with ‘stress’ said to me that after accepting I was not well, I also needed to accept that I would never be the same again. Fact. Another friend said that he came to realise before his retirement just how many people in the police service are hanging on to their mental health by their fingernails. Both these individuals were superintendents, so this issue is very real.

My concern is that as we see more and more colleagues getting promoted to senior roles relatively early, and with extended service, they may well be in these ranks for decades. The pressures will only mount and unless the on-call and specialist cadre burden are shared equally there will be too many more who develop lived experience of mental health crises. Teamwork is key, at all levels and in all roles.

Being on the PACE (Custody) and SFC on-call rotas and being a Silver Public Order Commander, I accrued a large number of RDILs. I couldn’t take them and still be at work to do my day job. I was burned out, my life home-life collapsed, and I went off sick.

I’m not unique in the level of stress and demand I was facing. PSA statistics show alarming levels of mental ill-health amongst our members, as do that of Oscar Kilo and other policing organisations. This is also not unique to the superintending ranks. Our colleagues at the Police Federation regularly share evidence of the toll of policing across the workforce.

When you reach burnout, on some days all you can do is set yourself a single task: that may be get out of bed, clean your teeth, or go for a walk. This may be all you can achieve. The theme of this year’s Mental Health Awareness Week is ‘moments for movement’. I thoroughly believe that exercise is critical to mental wellbeing, and if you can encourage the individual to do one thing, it is exercise – outdoors, in the daylight. I don’t mean train for a marathon, it may be as simple as a walk, however slow, around the block – but something in the daylight.

It is also worth having a look at how wellbeing support is presented on your Force website. All people in crises will want is the number to call and in what circumstance, in short sentences. It is simple. They are under stress. Do you need help? Phone this number. It also needs to be clear what level of crises the person you are phoning can support. I was rejected from a number of services because I was, at the time, too ill. There are significant gaps in our service provision, and most of what is offered is lower-end conversation therapy – which is hugely important, but please don’t assume the services available will meet all needs. Also – and I can’t say this enough – the person may need help navigating this journey.

Reach out. I have reflected a lot about my own experience and how I have previously failed friends who were off sick. I thought, “Someone else will speak with them”, “They don’t want to speak to me, there is a named welfare contact and I don’t want to pry”. They are all good reasons to justify not reaching out. However, the person who is struggling will be the arbiter of who they want to speak to. I was truly humbled by the number of people who reached out to me and who made themselves available for a coffee and a chat. This will not be forgotten. As an autistic person, I don’t have a wide circle of friends, in fact I would have said I didn’t really have any friends. I know otherwise now.

So, you have reached out. What should you do? It is all about listening and not necessarily about providing solutions. Being off long-term sick can be isolating and lonely; everyone is different and will have a different number of outside-work social networks to reply upon, but some may have none. Particularly those who live and breathe work. Dare one suggest it, but those who are autistic may be particularly likely to have a limited network of friends to speak to. A single contact at whatever interval your Force requires from the welfare contact may not actually be enough.

Returning to work. I read some years ago about the importance of having someone walk into work with you on that first day back. To meet you in the car park or even away from work and physically walk you to where you work and perhaps sit with you and have a cup of tea whilst you settle in. This was, and is, brilliant advice. I know individuals who have sat in car parks in tears not feeling able to walk into work. These are robust people. Don’t underestimate the thoughts going through the individual’s head, matters that may seem trivial: what will people think of me? Will I be welcomed back? Why do people think I was off sick? It is also worth reflecting on how many hours the person will return to work for in the first instance and what the nature of their duties will be. Did anyone think about turning off their email or recording an out of office reply whilst they were away? How many computer-based training packages are they required to complete? It all adds up and can become overwhelming. The process of re-acclimatisation may take weeks. It will also be exhausting.

My final observation is: have you considered how many of those who are off work on long-term sick leave with anxiety and depression may be undiagnosed (or indeed diagnosed) neurodivergent? There is a considerable body of evidence that indicates that those who are ND are more likely to suffer from anxiety and depression and seven times more likely to attempt or commit suicide. The view is that 20% of us/our colleagues in the service are ND, so there may well be an additional consideration here to be made. The question I find myself posing a lot is, “Do you know who your team are?” If not, if could be more beneficial than you ever imagined to find out. ∎

This blog was originally published on the PSA website – it is reproduced here with kind permission of the author

Updated CVF recognises needs of neurodivergent and disabled candidates

The College of Policing has released an update to the Competency and Values Framework (CVF), the document describing the behaviours required for recruitment, assessment and development across the UK police service.

The CVF is typically used as a basis for designing police recruitment, promotion and selection processes. The 2024 update replaces the previous version released in 2016.

The new version of the CVF explicitly references neurodiversity and disability, and acknowledges that assessment processes should allow candidates of all abilities to demonstrate their strengths:

Graphic illustrating competencies and values in the updated CVF

The CVF should be used in ways which allow for differing abilities, including those which stem from disabilities or neurodiversity. If your organisation is using the CVF as part of an assessment, the assessment should allow for different expression of the competencies and, where appropriate, allow candidates to demonstrate strengths in different areas. Reasonable adjustments should be provided for those who need them under the Equality Act (2010).

If you have a disability under the Equality Act 2010, you can ask for reasonable adjustments to the assessment to enable you to fully demonstrate your abilities. If you have a diagnostic report or professional workplace assessment, this will be helpful to the assessment team to ensure you’re given the right adjustments.

The updated CVF also states that competencies and values under assessment should be clearly signposted. This eliminates a potential source of ambiguity which has been found to adversely impact on ND candidates.

Click on the links to go to the College of Policing CVF webpage and to download a PDF copy of the 2024 CVF Guidance. (The wording above can be found on pages 10-11.) ∎

Unequal opportunities: what we can learn from employment tribunals

Why do neurodivergent police officers and staff resort to legal action against their employers?

by John Nelson
Chair | National Police Autism Association

In December 2023, the People Management website published an article on an Employment Tribunal case involving Lauren Crawford, an autistic and dyslexic police officer from Cumbria Constabulary who won a direct discrimination claim against her employer when she was excluded from Authorised Firearms Officer (AFO) training due to her conditions. This was notable as being one of the first – if not the first – widely-reported neurodiversity-related cases involving a police force. It probably won’t be the last.

Employment tribunals – civil legal cases arising from disputes over unlawful treatment under the Equality Act, and other breaches of employment law – are something of a taboo subject in policing. Accurate figures on the number and nature of disputes involving protected characteristics are difficult to assess due to the common practice of cases being settled out-of-court, typically with a non-disclosure agreement as part of the settlement – it is estimated that cases that go to court typically cost a Force in excess of £100,000, regardless of outcome. The corporate stigma around ETs is perhaps understandable, given that each case represents an alleged failure of an organisation dedicated to enforcing the law to treat its own staff lawfully and fairly; and yet each ET case represents a unique opportunity to learn from what has gone wrong and to make the police service a better employer. The reluctance to talk openly about ETs, the use of NDAs and an implicit tendency to blame the complainant means that these opportunities are often lost.

In this blog I aim to shine a light on the subject of neurodiversity-related employment disputes, and to share some of the experiences of our members gleaned over the years since the launch of our network. This article also serves as a resource for the presentation on employment tribunals which featured as part of the third Neurodiversity in Poicing conference in March 2024.

Before we go any further, a common-sense disclaimer: any police colleague involved in a dispute with their employer is advised to seek advice from the Federation, police staff union or qualified legal counsel before making any decisions concerning their employment. The information in this article is provided for interest only.

Firstly, what does the Equality Act say about neurodiversity? Although there is an ongoing debate about how neurodiversity fits into the wider sphere of disability, ND conditions must fit under the disability umbrella in order to be afforded protection under the Act for the purposes of unlawful discrimination. The Equality Act states that a physical or mental condition (an ‘impairment’ in the wording of the Act, which some may disagree with) has to represent a ‘substantial’ and ‘long-term’ negative effect on a person’s ability to do normal daily activities. This obviously depends on the individual, since ND conditions affect everyone differently. More on this later.

A few ET facts and figures:

  • Disability (and nerodiversity as a facet of disability) feature disporportionately. An oft-quoted figure provided by the Police Federation of England & Wales is that over 40% of police ET cases are related to disability.
  • The PFEW will only fund legal representation if there is a 51% chance or greater of winning a case. Although ET fees were abolished in 2017, legal representation is recommended for claimants – respondents (employers) can be expected to vigorously defend ET cases. The PFEW will only fund cases for Federation members if the likelihood is of a win.
  • An ET finding will become part of the permanent public record. In the age of the Internet and Google, this means your name and details of the case will be available on the Web in perpetuity for anyone to view.

A few common themes we have identified:

  • The level of disability assessed by an ET would need to represent a ‘significant impairment’ for the individual. This links back to the definition of a disability in the Equality Act. The ‘significant’ element is particularly relevant for officers who have already experienced some success with their careers: in a recent case, a ND condition was found not to meet this test as the officer had already achieved promotion in their career without the benefit of adjustments.
  • People ask for help too late in the process. We have been approached for support at the point of an ET application being made – it is much better for staff networks to be involved when the problem first appears, in order that we can assist with requesting adjustments and liaising with line management to broker a resolution, as part of a grievance procedure if necessary.
  • Struggling without adjustments can weaken your case. People will naturally try to adapt and work through adversity before approaching staff networks, the Police Federation or staff unions for help; however coping without adjustments for an extended period of time can weaken a future ET case. Where an employee’s performance or sickness record is affected, it also risks performance or misconduct action being taken.

On the subject of misconduct – which can arise from poorly-supported ND and feature in ET cases – it is important to note the effect of disclosing ND. We have found that ND being used as mitigation in misconduct cases can be used against the claimant – for example, being used to cast doubt on an officer’s competence. On the other hand, in cases where misconduct is proven, ND has led to the severity of a sanction being reduced – for example, a written warning remaining ‘live’ for a shorter period of time – rather than a lesser level of sanction being implemented.

It is useful to look at lessons learned from individual ET cases from within and outside policing, the key details of which are often left buried in case findings unless picked up by the media. Two notable cases are Buchanan v The Commissioner of Police of the Metropolis (2016), and Ramphal v Department for Transport (2015). The case of Buchanan involved a police motorcycle officer who suffered serious injuries whilst responding to an emergency call, resulting in an extended period of sick leave. The case finding, won on appeal, was that the implementation of the Force’s unsatisfactory performance procedure (UPP) in relation to Buchanan’s sick leave had to be justified on an individual basis – in Buchanan’s case, the Force was found to have applied the policy unfairly in relation to a physical condition which met the criteria of a disability. In other words, when it comes to applying rules around performance and attendance, ‘one size doesn’t fit all’.

In the case of Ramphal – again won on appeal – a finding of unfair dismissal was found in relation to a misconduct investigation concerning the complainant’s expense claims. The Tribunal found that the manager appointed to undertake the investigation had initially found in Ramphal’s favour, but had allowed themselves to be unduly influenced by the Human Resources (HR) department, which ultimately led to Ramphal’s dismissal. The key takeaway from this case was that the role of HR in a fair and transparent disciplinary investigation should be limited to providing advice on law and procedure, and that the outcome decision by the investigation manager should be theirs alone and not swayed by the opinion of third parties.

The case of Crawford v The Chief Constable of Cumbria Constabulary is sadly typical of the experiences of some of our members, who have found their neurodivergent conditions to be viewed in a negative light in the workplace. In summary: PC Crawford applied to be an AFO, having been supported by her managers and passing the pre-course assessments. The officer’s application was subsequently blocked by the Deputy Chief Constable, on the basis of an outdated ‘personal profile’ document drawn up when Crawford was first diagnosed as autistic and prior to her joining the Force as a regular officer. The DCC’s decision was found to be direct discrimination on the basis of the officer’s neurodivergency.

The Crawford case bears the hallmarks of confirmation bias: a decision-maker holding a belief – in this case that a neurodivergent colleague could not, or should not, perform a particular role – cherry-picking evidence to support their view and ignoring evidence to the contrary. Any disabled person who has interviewed for a position and found the interviewer more concerned with their disability rather than the qualities they can bring to the role will be familiar with this, as will disabled candidates who find themselves refused an interview despite meeting the role criteria.

Looking back over the cases we’ve been involved in and those reported in the media, the good news is that there doesn’t seem to be a common thread of police forces, locations or roles. If anything, the commonality in ET cases is randomness: individual managers making bad decisions, and officers and staff happening to fall foul of policies designed for neurotypical minds – in some cases after enjoying successful careers. The latter reveals a fact of life for neurodivergent professionals: no matter how successful and settled you may be, an unlucky change of circumstances – role, working environment, team or manager – can quickly lead to problems. The number of colleagues needing recourse to grievance procedures and legal action will hopefully drop as neurodiversity becomes better understood and accommodated in policing; however it may also rise due to an increased awareness of ND and willingness to challenge the status quo.

The Baroness Casey review of the workplace culture of the Metropolitan Police Service highlighted the negative attitudes towards disability – and, by extension, neurodiversity – that still exist in policing. Although understanding and acceptance of neurodiversity has progressed enormously since the NPAA launched in 2015, individual officers can still experience discrimination due to ignorance and stigma around neurodivergent conditions such as autism. Most would agree that employment tribunals are something to be avoided for all concerned; our advice to ND colleagues is to challenge poor treatment and negative attitudes at the earliest opportunity, and to use the resources of the NPAA, our sister groups the ADHD Alliance and Police National Dyslexia Association, and the Disabled Police Association, to educate and inform colleagues and decision-makers of the value of our neurodivergent talent. ∎