POLICING IN CENTRAL AND EASTERN EUROPE: Comparing Firsthand Knowledge with Experience from the West,
© 1996 College of Police and Security Studies, Slovenia


STRESS AND THE SENIOR POLICE MANAGER

Jennifer Brown, Cary Cooper

STRESS IN THE POLICE WORK ENVIRONMENT

Stress is a psychological concept borrowed from material sciences (Arnold, Robertson and Cooper 1991). Building materials are tested to discover their breaking points. A steel bar for example may be subjected to increasing pressure to discover weaknesses or the stress point at which the bar will fracture or eventually break. Different materials have different stress resistant properties.

Psychological pressure in the workplace derives from cultural, organizational and management environments as well as the work tasks that staff are asked to perform. Within the police environment, operational duties may well come under the category of traumatic stress such as a major disaster or shooting incident. Exposure to these can result in post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). As this paper is dealing with managing rather than front line officers, we will concentrate more on the routine sources of job pressures that may adversely affect senior officers.

As pressures build up, a person is said to be under stress when he or she runs out of resources to manage them. If the amount of pressure become too great then individuals may begin to show physical or psychological symptoms that can not only impede their work capabilities but also may result in physical and/or mental illness.

Table 1: Symptom of stress in the workplace


Depression                      Anxiety                    Substance abuse

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Low mood                        Excessive worry            Primacy of drinking over 

                                                           other activities

Loss of interest                Tension                    Withdrawal symptoms

Poor concentration              Palpitations               Relief drinking, smoking

Reduced energy                  Chest pains                Cravings

Sleep disturbance               Panic attacks

Loss of Appetite

Loss of sexual interest

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If an individual is suffering from some of these symptoms they may not be obvious at work, and often, within the police environment, officers will not admit to experiencing difficulty. A number of signs may provide an indication that an individual may be suffering from stress with the attendant implications for their health and work performance. The following list is not exhaustive but gives some indication of the kinds of behaviour that might be the result of occupational stress.

Table 2: Signs of stress in the workplace


Increasing lateness

Going home early

Working excessive hours

Absenteeism

Withdrawal from social contacts

Frequent mistakes

Forgetting appointments or deadlines

Long lunch breaks

Increased smoking or drinking

Inability to manage time

Frequent accidents

Conflict with colleagues

These factors are general to workplace environments. It is only more recently that examination has been made of these issues within the police environment (Brown and Campbell 1994; Brown, Cooper and Kikcaldy 1996) and before we examine sources of job pressures for police managers, some background to the contemporary circumstance in which officers found themselves may be helpful.

BACKGROUND TO THE PRESENT STUDY

The police service in England and Wales was formed in 1829 by Sir Robert Peel as an unarmed civil organisation designed to keep the Queen's peace, maintain public tranquility and to prevent or detect crime. A tripartite system of governance evolved through which the Home Secretary (Minister of Interior), Local Police Authority and the Chief Constable shared responsibility for the maintenance of an effective service.

In all there are 38 provincial and four metropolitan police forces in England and Wales subject to the tri-partite arrangements, the exception being London's Metropolitan Police Service (MPS) which, being the largest individual force with 28, 000 officers and additionally having responsibilities for policing the Capital, are directly accountable to the Home Secretary and has no local authority element. Government provide 51% of police funding with 49% coming from local taxation. The Home Officer set the numbers of individual force's personnel levels and dictated the distribution of officers by rank. Forces were inspected annually by Her Majesty's Inspectorate of Constabulary, staffed by former chief constables, who provide a confidential report to each force and issued a certificate of competence.

Forces tended to be organised in territorial commands with strong central control of policy and finance from the chief constable. This situation remained the norm until the advent of the 1979 Conservative Government. Since that time the British police have experienced more change than in its entire previous history.

Against this background of unprecedented change, we undertook a survey of occupational stress amongst senior police officers. This paper will briefly outline the kinds of change occurring within the service and examine the sources of stress impacting officers who were to be instrumental in managing those changes. It should be noted that data collection took place during the period of consultation about police reforms so whilst some of the changes had been implemented others were still under discussion. It was a time of considerable anxiety and uncertainty.

SOURCES OF CHANGE

New Public Management

Mrs Thatcher's Conservative Government instituted a major shift in the way public services had been organised in Great Britain by introducing market disciplines into the public sector. Under the rubric of New Public Sector Management, public services had to demonstrate efficiency, effectiveness and value for money. In 1982 the Financial Management Initiative set out the goals for the public sector: a clear view of objectives; well defined responsibilities for making the best use of public money; access to expert advice for managers to exercise their responsibilities effectively.

For the police service a Home Office circular, 114/83, set out some of the principles of good management for the service which included increased civilianization, better use of information technology and devolved financial responsibilities. For the first time success in achieving objectives was going to be measured by way of a battery of performance indicators and comparisons made between forces.

The introduction of private sector management systems came to a police senior management that had been selected largely on the grounds of their operational capability. Relatively few had had management, financial, personnel or administrative training. There were more changes to come.

Immediately prior to the data collection, the Sheehy report commissioned by the Home Secretary was published. This argued for the elimination of the ranks of Deputy Chief Constable, Chief Superintendent and Chief Inspector. In addition, Sheehy proposed introducing fixed term contracts and performance related pay which were to be bitterly opposed by police officers within the service. The report also developed the ideas of devolved budgeting and cost centres to replace centralised budgetary control.

Managerial accountability

The Government established the Audit Commission in 1982 in order to monitor and promote economy, effectiveness and efficiency in the public sector. Thus the police service found itself subject to the scrutiny of a new (non police) body of professional accountants who were not only to take a much more critical examination of management practices than the HMI inspectors but also publish their reports. The Audit Commission police investigations brought about significant changes such as promoting the introduction of civilian administrative support units, changing the philosophy of the territorial command through the basic command unit (BCU) concept. The Commission was also concerned with the notion of the Citizen's charter, an idea of the Major Government. This was a means to set publically accountable targets for the delivery of services. The police for the first time had to indicate for example the expected time it would take to respond to emergency calls, make these data available to the Commission who would then publish them. A climate of competition was fostered as "league" tables of results from the countries forces began to appear comparing the relative performance of forces..

Governance

At this time work was also progressing on changes in the tri-partite arrangements. A consultation document indicated a change in the relationship between the chief officer and the Police Authority. An annual policing plan would have to be produced as the joint responsibility of the Force and the Authority. This was to involve a measure of community consultation to establish local policing priorities. New independent members of the Authority were to be appointed and the number of locally elected representatives cut down. In addition the Home Secretary was to set national policing objectives, which were also to be measured (and compared).

Operational focus

There were significant changes in the modus operandi of policing activities. Considerable criticism had been levelled at the police service by e.g Lord Scarman when he inquired into the causes of civil disturbances in Brixton in 1981. Further outbreaks of racial tension in the 1990, had lead to attempts to create a more community focus leading the service away from more reactive "fire brigade" policing. Forces set up training in community relations and formed community liaison groups.

Following a number of high level inquiries into domestic violence and child sexual abuse, and the issuing of Home Office circulars on good practice, forces were encouraged to establish specialist units. These developments were at some variance with traditional values embedded within the informal rank and file culture and presented considerable challenges to police managers to close the gap between policy rhetoric and operational practice.

Organizational factors

Finally, there were additional organizational factors that resulted in significant changes to traditional practices within the service and with which officers had to come to terms.

Police commanders were required to become police managers, having to get to grips with management information, service planning, devolved budgeting, new equality policies, career development planning and more thorough appraisal of staff. It was against this background of actual and anticipated change that the present study took place.

STUDY DETAILS

A sample was drawn by approaching the respective Superintendents Associations of England and Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. For present purposes, only data from England and Wales are reported. Ten officers of the ranks of superintendent and chief superintendents were approached in the 43 forces of England and Wales which constituted 20% of all officers in these two ranks. A questionnaire comprising the Occupational Stress Inventory (OSI) and a number of demographic and additional health questions was sent to respondents.The OSI has a number of sub scales which measure job satisfaction, current state of health, Type A behaviour, locus of control, a 61 item inventory of sources of job pressure and a coping response inventory. A total of 348 questionnaires were returned giving a response rate of 81%.

RESULTS

The superintendents were mostly male, aged forty something, married with children. The had served for an average of 26 years in the police service. Seventeen percent of the sample had been divorced at some time. Operationally, 35% served in a BCU, with the rest commanding a traditional territorial sub-division. Forty seven percent 47% were responsible for devolved budgets. These factors did not prove to be significant in the amount or kinds of job pressures officers reported.

General health and fitness

In the main, the superintendents were less likely to smoke or be ill than the rank and file police officer. Also they were less likely to have been ill recently. The superintendents were less likely to take exercise than their junior colleagues and more likely to have some long standing health problem. On balance, the superintendents show a better fitness profile than the population at large.

Table 3: Health and fitness of police managers and rank and file officers


Health and fitness dimensions             SUPTS               OTHER1

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smokers                                    19%                 21%

take regular exercise                      59%                 63%

been ill recently                          11%                 10%

outpatient                                 12%                 14%

inpatient                                   2%                  4%

long standing health problem               21%                 19%

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Main sources of job pressures

The main sources of job pressures for superintendents are similar to those found in other organisations, namely work overload, staff shortages, insufficient resources and lack of consultation. Where there was comparable data from the rank and file police officers then more superintendents complain of work overload, inadequate resources, having to attend meetings and conflicting tasks than their junior counterparts. Both senior and more junior officers are equally likely to complain of having to keep longer hours. Staff shortages seem to impact junior officers more than their seniors.

Table 4: Job pressures impacting police managers and rank and file officers


Job pressures                 Superintendents            Other ranks

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work overload                       84%                       48%

staff shortages                     68%                       72%

insufficient resources              66%                       44%

lack of consultation                64%                       52%

mundane administration              61%                        -

factors not under your control      60%                        -

organizational structures           60%                        -

morale/ org climate                 52%                        -

attending meetings                  53%                       39%

job/task conflicts                  50%                       28%

long hours                          49%                       49%

keeping up with innovations         47%                       28%

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Occupational factors

Our results indicated that the most stressed senior officers were those who had served the majority of their service in one main area of policing and were promoted and moved into another. For the most part this most seriously affected officers who had been detectives and who, on promotion, had moved into the uniformed operational branch. A graphic example of this problem was illustrated through the Hillsborough football stadium disaster in which football fans were crushed to death when trying to leave the grounds after the match. The Chief Superintendent in charge of maintaining public order had only recently been promoted from a previous career in criminal investigations. He had had little experience in managing a major public event and was apparently given no specific training when he took up his new post. His inexperience and operational shortcomings were criticised in the public inquiry examining the causes of the disaster (Mason, 1989).

Coping strategies

Coping strategies are the various means by which individuals attempt to deal with the various pressures that impact them at work. Superintendents , by and large, try and anticipate or deal with problems as they arise. Very few admit to using either avoidance strategies or seeking social support.

Table 5: Coping strategies used by police managers


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Dos                   Plan ahead

                      Deal with problems immediately

                      Set priorities and deal with problems accordingly

                      Have stable relationships

                      Try and deal with situations objectively

Don'ts                Avoid situations

                      Resort to rules and regulations

                      Seek as much social support as possible

                      Try and change behaviour and slow down

                      Buy more time

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DISCUSSION

In overall terms, senior police managers describe job pressures that are similar to those experienced in other areas of work such as medicine and teaching (Hingley and Cooper 1986: Cox, Boot and Cox (1988).. This implies that stress prevention, reduction or management techniques used elsewhere may be imported to the police organization.

The list of changes in organizational structure and management styles has affected all areas of the public sector, with the police service amongst the last to be subjected to these pressure to change. The police service was probably the least prepared of the public sector organisations for the introduction of market disciplines. The Conservative Government under Mrs Thatcher had protected the police from the financial strictures it had imposed on health and education services. The momentum of change increased its pace as reforms worked their way through different parts of the public sector, so that by the time these hit the police, the time scale for assimilation was considerably foreshortened. Superintendents for example complained of stressors that are factors not under their direct control. Open ended comments from our respondents give a flavour of their reactions to both the pace as well as kinds of change they were required to manage

"The single biggest frustration is the amount of change for change's sake being forced on the police service by outside bodies who have little or no knowledge of the practical problems of policing"

The outside bodies that this officer was alluding to included the Audit Commission and the enquiry chaired by Sir Patrick Sheehy, the managing Director of British American Tobacco who had been asked to review the roles and responsibilities of the police. Concern about the stress created by poor morale and factors to do with the organisational structure and climate worried the superintendents in our sample and was of greater concern to them than their counterparts in the private sector (Brown, Cooper and Dudman 1992). It is interesting that the rank and file complain of poor communication and a lack of support that they experience from their senior officers as significant sources of stress. The superintendents make much the same complaint of their senior managers

"A police force is governed very much by the chief constable's management style. I have worked for both ends of the spectrum: the democrat, innovator, open delegator and now an autocrat involved in every decision, closed minded, precise. Petulant and insecure. Their two very different styles pervaded the whole force and set the tone. The former lowered the stress levels, the other has done quite the opposite. "

The consequences for stressed officers was also highlighted by our respondents

"An organisation that is in a constant state of flux can only invoke in its employees feelings of instability and uncertainty. We exist on adrenalin, anti-depressants and tranquilizers. We are asked to achieve the unachievable- and then criticised for our failures."

Our research showed that managerial pressures do impact those who are required to implement and manage change. Given the apparent reluctance of police managers to seek social support, and the pressures exerted by the police culture that inhibit admission that you are unable to to cope, some concessions may need to be made to police, especially senior officers in offering them remedial help such as stress counselling.

In 1990 over 1 million police working days were lost through sickness absence an average rate of 11 days per officers. It has been estimate that 25% of these absences were specifically due to stress (Brown and Campbell 1994). In many instances adverse stress reactions are avoidable or at least some mitigation can be offered. It has been argued (Manolias 1983) that special consideration should be given to occupational stress in the police service because:

Thus it is a matter of concern for individual, organisational and even democratic health that the matter of stress within the police is one to which attention should be paid.

The lessons from the West suggest that when tackling stress among police managers (or rank and file officers) the following steps are important:

NOTES

  1. Data drawn from a survey of police others conducted by Brown and Forde in 1989 and responses from federated ranks used for comparison (i.e. constables, sergeants, inspectors and chief inspectors)


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