30 March 2017
Police officers are going sick or reporting for duty despite being physically or psychologically unwell, and many are using leave days to recover from illness.
And stigma around mental health could be masking the true number of officers who are going sick or soldiering on while too unwell to work.
The Police Federation of England and Wales (PFEW) surveyed 16,841 officers across 43 forces in February 2016, which found that two fifths (58%) of respondents missed one or more days through sickness in the previous 12 months. Of these, 29% attributed at least one day of their sickness absence to stress, depression or anxiety.
In addition to looking at absenteeism, the 2016 PFEW Officer Demand, Capacity and Welfare Survey studied ‘presenteeism’, which is the act of attending work while ill, and ‘leaveism’, where officers use annual leave or rest days to recover from illness.
The vast majority of respondents (90%) admitted to working on one or more occasions while not well enough physically, and 65% worked while not feeling up to it mentally. Some 59% of respondents had used leave or holiday to get over a bout of physical or psychological ill-health.
Jason Kwee, who chairs the Police Federation of England and Wales’ Health and Safety Sub Committee, said the results are not surprising given the 14% fall in officer numbers over seven years. Numbers have declined from a high of 143,734 in 2009 to 122,859 in September 2016, according to the Home Office, and this has placed increased pressure on remaining officers.
Mr Kwee commented: “The stigma which surrounds stress and mental health could be masking the true scale of the problem. How many absences that are labelled physical illness are actually due to stress? For example someone under pressure will have knock on the wrist or ankle and go sick but the real reason is an underlying mental health issue.
“The alarmingly clear message of the welfare survey is that forces are under pressure and the cuts have had – and continue to have – an impact on delivery and on officers’ lives. Every additional absence from stress further adds to the burden on those still at work.”
He added that there are inconsistencies across forces in the level of welfare support they provide to officers and this needs to be improved. At the same time, those who feel stressed, depressed or psychologically unwell should be encouraged to seek help and be supported by their force.
Mr Kwee said: “Policing is a vocation where officers are proud to serve their communities and will often do so at the risk to their health. They will come in and carry on regardless and that is not healthy. It is a sad reflection on the service that officers are using leave and rest days to recover from illness. There are not enough hours in the day but officers need down time and to switch off from work for their health and well-being.”
He added that PFEW is awaiting the publication of the NPCC Wellbeing Charter and will encourage forces to embrace it.