Half of senior police say they are stressed and depressed

Long hours and bullying superiors leave top-rank officers ravaged by anxiety
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The Independent Online

More than half of senior police officers are suffering from anxiety and depression brought on by under-staffing, bullying chief constables and 60-hour working weeks.

The survey of 800 superintendents and chief superintendents in England and Wales paints a picture of police forces ravaged by record levels of stress-related illnesses. Nearly one-quarter described their anxiety symptoms as moderate or severe, while a similar number said they suffered from depression.

In one recent case, a 40-year-old superintendent suffered a heart attack after working 30 days without a day off. The findings are so worrying that the Police Superintendents' Association is to raise the report with Sir Hugh Orde, the new head of the Association of Chief Police Officers (Acpo).

More than half of the senior officers questioned also complained of working 50- to 60-hour weeks, which the report said was a breach of European working-time directive laws.

And one third said they would rather use their holiday allowance than take an official sick day.

Superintendent Robin Jarman, a member of the national executive of the Police Superintendents' Association (PSA), which commissioned the report, said the survey showed the situation was getting worse, not better.

He added: "It's disappointing that all of our efforts [to encourage the police forces to take action] are not being listened to. It's particularly sad because we are talking about officers who are loyal and committed to the police."

Nearly 40 per cent of officers reported that senior management's approach to managing performance was "harsh and unhelpful", and nearly a third said chief constables showed "bullying behaviour". Others said stress and depression could be triggered by the exposure to traumatic incidents they encountered during their work.

But there were also worryingly high levels of demands placed on the officers' daily workload. Particular concerns were raised about the management of "difficult people", attending numerous meetings, and receiving a high volume of emails and work phone calls at all times of the day and night. Nearly 40 per cent said they did not have enough resources or staff to do the job. And the vast majority said they found it difficult to balance the demands of work with their family lives.

Emma Donaldson-Fielder, the occupational psychologist who analysed the research, said: "The majority of respondents perceive everyone in their organisation to work long hours; working long hours is seen as a way to show you are performing well and that people feel they mustn't be seen as fallible. We still need to convince people that a 'persistent long hours' culture is unhealthy and contrary to the European Working Time Directive, which is in place to protect staff."

The new figures for moderate or severe levels of anxiety symptoms are 6 per cent higher than they were three years ago, when the results of a similar survey were published.

On behalf of ACPO, Vice-President Tim Hollis, Chief Constable of Humberside said:

“The Superintendents Association undertakes personal resilience surveys every three years, a move which I fully support as a means of gauging emerging issues for their members. As such if there are challenges to be discussed, ACPO would actively encourage a meeting with the Association to find a way forward.

“Unfortunately the issue of targets is something that frankly is not going to go away. Comparative crime statistics continue to feature significantly in the ongoing monitoring of police performance and I see little evidence that this will change in the near future. Indeed, as budgets get tighter, pressure on the service in relation to performance is likely to increase.

“High quality leadership training throughout the service is essential if we are to meet the complex demands made of us without people feeling poorly managed or led. For that reason, I welcome recent improvements in training across the ranks and the leadership within ACPO is keen to work with both the Superintendents Association and the Federation in addressing any issues that they have identified.”

The full findings will be unveiled at the PSA's annual conference this month.

The stretched blue line: One chief superintendent's story

Chief Superintendent John Smith, 43 – not his real name – was in charge of policing a large urban area in southern England before his excessive workload led to severe depression

I joined my local police force in the south of England in the early 1980s because I wanted to serve my community as well as work in an interesting job. I found I really liked the work and rose quickly through the ranks so that by the time I was in my mid-30s I had been appointed a superintendent responsible for 300 officers.

The new job was hard and I soon found myself putting in ridiculous hours. There was also a lot of travelling to and from work which meant I was leaving for the office at 6am and, because I had to go to lots of meetings after work, I was not getting home until 9pm. But my borough was winning awards for some of our projects and initiatives which had helped to bring national attention to my officers. Because of these successes, all the extra hours seemed worthwhile.

I decided I would push for the post of chief superintendent and started putting in even more hours because I thought this was what was required. But slowly my health began to suffer and that caused my family life to suffer too. I was feeling more and more depressed about little setbacks and because I didn't have any time to exercise, I was also putting on weight.

It all came to a head when one of my superiors told me that I had to go sick. I was finally diagnosed as having severe depression brought on by the stress of my job. It was a shock but also a relief because at last I could address the stresses and anxieties which had brought on my illness. In the end I was off work for six months until I could come back on a part-time basis.