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Wellbeing and its impact on effectiveness

By Chief Superintendent Irene Curtis – President

Last month I attended the first national ‘Well-Being in Policing Conference’ which was hosted by my home force, Lancashire Constabulary. Although I’m currently seconded out of force, I have heard lots about the work being undertaken in it which focuses on the importance of staff well-being.

In my view, this is even more important now than ever it was before due to the fact that every force has fewer police officers and staff than they have had for many years. Speakers at the conference included Dame Carol Black and Professor Cary Cooper, both of whom gave really interesting and challenging presentations.

But, one thing that really struck me was the fact that it has taken the service so long to recognise that it is our people that are at the very heart of delivering policing to the public. How can it have taken so long for this realisation to dawn?

Several years ago, when forces first started reducing officer and staff numbers, I remember discussing with numerous chief officers about the fact that, not only was it important to treat those who were leaving the service properly and fairly, but that it was also the time to invest in those who continued as part of the Police Service.

Many force change management programmes have, quite rightly, focused on how to reduce costs to meet smaller budgets. Most of the savings have been achieved by reducing officer and staff numbers – yet there appears to have been little focus on ensuring that those who remained in the service had the appropriate skills and peer support to do what was being demanded of them.

It became obvious very early on that those officers and staff remaining were going to have to take on additional work and responsibilities. The mantra of ‘doing more with less’ was used liberally. However, it is unreasonable and unfair to expect them to do this without any additional support and, where necessary, appropriate training being made available. Many chief officers to whom I spoke agreed with this but, from a staff association perspective, we have seen very little evidence of such support being provided.

So what can be done to improve the well-being of our officers and staff?

Well, for me, one critical element is that they must feel valued; they must believe that they being treated fairly, and they must consider that they are at the heart of any well-being strategy. This requires leaders at every level, but in particular chief officers, to create an environment where officers and staff have the confidence to speak up and to challenge – without fear of recrimination – and that when they do speak up, they will actually be listened to. In a hierarchical, ‘command and control’ organisation such as ours, we have not got a great track record of this. Such challenge has rarely been welcomed and has often been seen as career limiting. This culture needs to change and it needs to change now.

Another critical area is resilience. How confident do our officers and staff feel about their competence and effectiveness to deal with stressful situations; and in their ability to adapt to a rapidly changing and increasingly demanding environment? How resilient are they to dealing with setbacks, and what social support is available to them? Forces really need to consider how resilience can be integrated into training programmes, both for individuals, and also for supervisors – who need to be particularly alert to any signs of a lack of resilience to ensure that the necessary support is made available quickly.

There is no doubt that early intervention in such cases is critical. Prevention is always better than cure. The prevention of ‘burn out’ can, not only save an individual from lasting psychological damage, but can also save the organisation massively in terms of cost, both ‘actual’ and ‘opportunity’. Preventing ‘burn out’ by considering how officers and staff are treated at all times; reviewing workloads and breaking down the ‘long hours’ culture will benefit both the service and the public whom we here are to serve and in whose interests we act.

I’m a firm believer in the saying, ‘actions speak louder than words’. It’s no good having a well-being strategy if it isn’t followed through in the behaviours of leaders at every level of the service.

Any change must be led from the top, both in word and in deed. So, as the service moves ever closer to further budget cuts and further reductions in officers and staff, I call on all chief officers and police and crime commissioners to critically examine what your force is doing to genuinely engage with; support, and positively lead your officers and staff – who are now working harder than ever before – to help them deliver the best possible service that they can to the public.

Our people are our most important asset. We must always ensure that they are looked after properly and are valued for who they are and what they do. The need to do this has never been greater.