An Old Article but still sadly relevant today in 2018
Published Garda Review in 2007.
We need a certain amount of stress to function; but what actually is it?
Stress is experienced regularly. We require a certain amount of it to get through tasks, keep us focused and motivated. The problems occur when our body and mind is subjected to high levels of stress for extended periods of time. This is further heightened if we perceive certain situations to be life threatening, harmful to our health or to our sense of self.
These incidences may lead to distress, a natural defence mechanism designed for our bodies to respond to such perceived times of danger; known as ‘flight or fight’. At such times our body creates high levels of stress hormones such as epinephrine (adrenaline), norepinephrine (noradrenaline) dopamine and cortisol, which has harmful effects; that contribute to increases in blood pressure and blood sugar levels and may cause infertility in women. It suppresses the immune system as well as damaging long term memory.
The overall hormonal reaction can wear down both body and subsequently emotions; people under distress can often become emotional, irritable, anxious, have difficulty making decisions and even suffer from symptoms of depression and insomnia. If that weren’t enough, sufferers can also expect biological stress-related illnesses and conditions such as weight loss, lethargy, stomach complaints, high blood pressure and even heart attacks. These issues have devastating effects.
It’s obvious why the World Health Organisation’s experts in health and welfare consider policing to be one of the most stress-inducing professions.
Garda work is challenging; traumatic events such as death from violence, accident or suicide, as well as witnessing, securing and reporting such incidences the job then expects that the member informs family members of the tragedy.
Within policing many different aspects provide extremely stress-inducing incidences and strains that can deeply affect both the life of the Garda and their families. Members involved in routine duties potentially face harrowing, challenging and dangerous situations throughout a shift. Other specialist units dealing with such areas as child abuse and child-related areas are not only challenged by the inherent dangers associated with front line duties but also the challenges they face to their own attitudes, cultural beliefs and personal values.
Criminality and social disorder is a side of society most don’t see.Members can be immersed into aspects of society deemed as depraved and violent yet are then expected to finish a shift and enter back into ‘normal’ society; back to family and friends with little opportunity to address the challenges faced on each shift.
The operational aspects of policing can be difficult, but when a policeman or policewoman is investigated for their role in carrying out their jobs they can find themselves to be completely isolated and alone to face endless possibilities that may affect them and their families for the rest of their lives.
I have worked with individuals on the wrong end of false allegations arising directly from stress-filled working environments and the level of damage to all aspects of one’s life is immense and devastating. The area of disciplinary procedures is an area that requires high levels of support, communication, understanding and pro-active research to address the needs of individuals under investigation.
Within an organisation the issues of stress are far reaching and are experienced at every level from the new recruit trying to fit in, to the most senior of management positions charged with the operational duties and the responsibilities to each member.
The culture of police work is insular and strong; issues of stress are still, sadly and naively, considered by some to be issues of weakness that are best not discussed or addressed. The truth is simple: the negative affects of stress are very real and will be a major factor in low morale, health and productivity if they are not addressed effectively.
The most serious problems faced by the Force may have stress-related roots. Serious aspects of stress are often a symptom of poor employment relations and have serious implications for the individual and the organization. Those that may suffer from the negative affects of stress at senior levels may find it hard if not impossible to change with the times, as change can be very difficult for most to accept and requires individuals to leave their safe comfort zones.
A symptom of such for those in a leadership role maybe to compensate by enforcing ill conceived and old rules to the letter of the law in order to keep an internal sense of achievement, while shying away from making adaptations that will add to the process of change, it’s easier at times to not challenge and fight for change in an environment that may be negative towards you for doing so. Such issues can result in a breakdown in communication, a dividing of opinion, frustration, anger and a lack of open transparent communication resulting in many more problems.
Within such environments the right of the individuals to have their own opinions can be lost and censored. The right of people to change their minds can be seen as a weakness and the right to ask for help can be seen as an inability to do ones job. Fear to challenging such issues can also be great as there is a very real openly reported sense within AGS that to challenge such concerns will lead to you being “gotten” in the future, either by impacting on your promotion options or added and undue pressure to conform or leave the service.
This too adds to the overall stress levels, frustration and low moral of the workforce. So for some it’s easier not to make decisions, not to raise your head above that parapet. This way of doing things however understandable not only diminishes an individual’s rights but burdens those prepared to challenge the system for the right reasons to be isolated and ridiculed.
The negative effects of stress affect all levels of the organisation and will continue to do so if not addressed. If addressed properly however with acceptance and openness the benefits will be great.
Another area not discussed in regard to stress both for the individual and the organisation is the damage it has on one’s sense of self or one’s ‘self concept’. This is one’s understanding of who you are or an organization’s understanding of what it is. We form our self concept through introspection (looking inward at oneself) and through feedback back from others (the Force has had considerable negative feedback through the press).
An example of this conflict might be when individuals choose to drink or smoke to excess in order to attempt to cope with such things as stress. They know that this is both unhealthy and does not help, yet tend to justify it in order to try and elevate the sense of inner conflict. This spirals into a cycle of further unhappiness.
POSE A REAL THREAT
The World Health Organisation states that up to half of workers in industrialized countries experience psychological stress. Environmental stressors such as hazardous conditions are one cause, but occupational stress also results from work organization -workload, lack of autonomy and control over work, shift work, wage scales and routine, repetitive work. Stress associated with work has been shown to contribute to cardiovascular disease, musculoskeletal problems and other conditions.”
The International Labour Committee reviewed a study of potential sources of stress among Scottish police officers which indicated that the stressors stemming from organizational aspects, such as perceived staff shortages, inadequate resources, time pressures and lack of communication were more significant than those relating to police work. It found that “officers under stress could pose a real threat to their own safety and that of others”.
Coping mechanisms to avoid thinking or dealing with such conditions include over working, using alcohol, self medicating or ‘just getting on with it’. This in part I believe extends from the culture of police work which covertly dictates that signs of genuine stress and difficulty are considered to be signs of weakness, yet for someone to acknowledge their sense of stress and difficulty is a sign of great strength and personal awareness.
The role of a Garda requires emotional health and well being. People with good emotional health are in control of their thoughts, feelings, and behaviours. They feel good about themselves and have good relationships. They can keep problems in perspective and act with clarity and insight. Good mental health is a key piece of equipment, the one ‘dependent variable’ that you rely on daily.Stability of thought allows you to make quick, appropriate decisions and deal with difficulties as they arise. Without this stability the frustrations and stressors of the job may make the decision process difficult and may result in doing things based on stress and frustration arising from the day to day duties associated with the job.
The management of stress and providing counselling is a key issue for emergency services workers. Many can be seriously psychologically affected by incidents of trauma specifically related to death, injury, contracting diseases and life-threatening situations. For those who have survived and got through such incidents there can be often times of avoidance and difficulty accepting that they may have been affected, followed by periods of stress or even acute and post-traumatic stress disorders. A study carried out on emergency service workers in New South Wales reported that about “30% of respondents had experienced stress severe enough to seek help, but 39% of these did not seek help for various reasons. Only 9% reported that the information on the availability of such help was given to them during initial training.
There are many things that cannot be done to make the job of policing easier but there are the basics that can be in place; more professionally-trained support officers by way of a better supported EAP Service, proper and up to date equipment, more pro-active training in the areas of stress management and communications and proper working conditions. For An Garda Siochana there is an essential requirement and need for an Internal Garda Specific Unit of Trained non member Psychologists/Therapists providing individual Confidential Therapeutic Support designed to care for Police Officers and their families in complete confidence, to attend where possibly scenes of trauma and crisis to support members and to advise on policy in order to support the future requirements of all members in need.
Employers have a duty of care to their staff to assess the risk of stress related ill health and to control that risk, this requires the identification of risk at source which has been raised in research carried out by myself, health and safety research carried out by Dr Garavan of Limerick University and other work such as research carried out Prof. Cary Cooper in which he confirms that “stress at work does exist” and that one in five people are stressed at work.
It is important to note that a Garda Specif Confidential Therapeutic Support Service for which I support will not counteract the full extent of problems faced, but it will go a long way to establishing change and supporting those that need it. However, the focus should never be removed from the responsibilities of the organisation to deal with their duty of care and the fundamental issues of the emotional health and welfare of their employees. Although, if in place it should be madatory for members who experience trauma during their working shift to have to attend therapy as a matter of course, in this regard the stigma of seeing a therapist is removed completly.
The areas of unhappiness, workplace stress and the need of people to seek support should not be seen as an individual problem but as an area that needs to be addressed as an organisational issue. These are not disciplinary issues or issues to be ignored, it takes a strong mind to know when to ask for support and it takes a committed and caring organisation to embrace change and offer the most effective support possible knowing that it will continue to enhance the overall and exceptional service offered.
By Mark Reddy
Editor: Neil Ward Garda Review
This is a link to an article on Debriefing and PTSD that should be reviewed by all involved in the Emergency Services LINK