“There's no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothes.” (Norwegian saying)
I have been assisting recently with the delivery of some Leadership and Well-being workshops for the College of Policing with Oscar Kilo, the National Police Well-being service. At one of the events we heard about an initiative introduced by a force that they were really proud about to try and improve staff and officers mental health.
Under the scheme, all existing officers and front-line staff will take a confidential online questionnaire to flag up any potential problems, which are then explored in a face-to-face interview. They could then be referred to a force psychologist for further treatment. Previously this had only been available to "high risk" positions such as firearms officers and child sex abuse investigators. The analogy used was that you cannot dip people in water without them getting wet.
Whilst at first glance this initiative might seem like a step forward, it pre-supposes that policing has to break people, or at least start to break them and then interventions can be put into place to try and put them back together again. I am not convinced that this is the right approach to take, and the analogy used set me thinking.
In my spare time I work as a mountain leader and the mountains are often wet places to visit. I know that if I get wet in the mountains then the consequences can be really serious. Once wet, you get cold very quickly, and once cold you move less efficiently in the environment and your decision making is impacted negatively. This can lead to a negative spiral, moving less efficiently and so generating less heat and getting yet colder. Also decision making is impeded, so navigation becomes more difficult, mistakes are common adding to the journey time and so making matters worse again. This downward spiral can lead to hypothermia, and ultimately death. It is therefore really important that precautions are taken to avoid this situation developing in the first place.
These precautions start with the clothes I wear. They are lightweight, man-made fabrics that dry quickly should I get caught in a light shower. I then also carry a rucksack in which I have a set of good quality waterproofs.
Outdoor clothing manufacturers spend a huge amount of money researching the fabrics to use in their waterproof clothing. It needs to be waterproof – obviously, but also needs to be breathable, lightweight, robust and not leak where the rucksack touches. All that research means that waterproofs these days are so much more than just a plastic bag.
In the rucksack I also carry some food and a warm drink to keep me going. There is also some spare warm clothing, so that should I need to I can put on some additional dry layers to keep warm and functioning correctly.
Finally I carry an emergency shelter. A lightweight brightly coloured shelter that I am able to get into and that protects me from the elements. Once inside my body heat is trapped and so the inside quickly warms up. I can use this to warm myself up, take some food and the warm drink on, change into some of the additional clothes and generally regroup and plan my next move, thereby allowing me to safely continue my journey. Alternatively I can shelter in there and await assistance, and being brightly coloured that assistance should be able to locate me more easily.
I think that this analogy should better frame the interventions put in place to manage the well-being of police officers and staff.
Acknowledging that policing can be a ”wet” place to be we should equip our staff with the strategies and techniques that they need to keep themselves dry and warm as they go on their daily journey. Drawing on the best available research to identify these strategies and techniques.
Finally we should have the group shelter available as a last resort because, sometimes, despite our best efforts and planning we do get caught out and need some safe space to re-group or await assistance.
Employers failing to do this is like sending staff out into the mountains in flip flops and shorts in the expectation that Mountain Rescue will come and save them when it all goes wrong.
This is a guest post from Inspector Phil Raymond, a serving police officer currently seconded to the College of Policing.