Where are we on 999 Wellbeing?

Who is helping the helpers?

Around this time last year, in anticipation of World Suicide Prevention Day 2019, I wrote this:

As a nation, as a society and often as the organisations who employ them; the support and investment available to emergency services workers is not good enough. We need to do better - or, those with budgets and influence need to do better.

Since then, of course, the world has changed in ways no-one could really have predicted – but equally we still find ourselves faced with many of the same fundamental questions. Remember a few months ago that people across the land clapped heartily to show their appreciation of key workers?

What tangible improvement has that led to?

Today we also have Emergency Services Day – another chance for some recognition, but once the tweets have been and gone and we’ve preached to the choir, what’s left until next year?

If you’ve read my articles regularly, hopefully you’ll agree that I take an optimistic (if realistic) approach to these issues and of course I back any efforts of this nature, but I have to say that my daily conversations with those on the frontline of policing, health, education and other pillars of society have left me with the impression that progress is about as swift as Blackadder’s asthmatic ant with heavy shopping.

People in these roles needed help before Coronavirus turned everyday life on its head. Now that they’ve had even more exposure to trauma, been saddled with even more uncertainty, been placed even more firmly between a rock and a hard place – should we not be doing more to help?

This week, today in fact, I was due to be in Cornwall visiting and experiencing the excellent programme “Operation Surfwell” – run by police officers and supported by Police Care UK to combine the benefits of surfing, the outdoors, peer support and individual interventions to yield major wellbeing boosts. It’s clearly a great idea driven by dedicated people.

Unfortunately, we’re not there – such is the demand already that it’s hugely oversubscribed, so we were of course happy to give up places on the day to those in need. It does make me wonder though – is this a very stark example of both how widespread mental health and wellbeing issues are, as well as how little support has previously been available?

There’s no shortage of “awareness” campaigns, conferences, research, surveys and so on – which in itself I have no issue with. I want to see the best possible solutions that are evidence-based, fit for purpose and reach the people they are intended for.

The problem is, we seem to have been stuck on the “awareness” and “discussion” stage for years already.

For example, have we really only just realised that police officers working extended shifts might suffer from fatigue? Or that perhaps leaving an environment that institutionalises you with no support might have some wellbeing impacts?

The Premier League football season restarts at the weekend. When a player falls to the turf having twisted a knee or pulled a hamstring, will his club quickly check whether or not he’s been paying a percentage of his salary into his own potential treatment before sending a physio on?

Or, do they realise that the players are the key asset and therefore it makes both human and business sense to look after them to prevent injury and help them recover as best they can too? The quicker they get back to match fitness, the better they perform, the more they contribute to the team, the more the team wins, the more the club as a whole thrives. It’s not complicated – so why is there still such a battle for so many key workers to be supported, treated and developed?

Why, then, do public services in this country (and beyond) insist on placing all this burden at the door of the individual, without creating the tools and support systems to enable it?

I’ve written before about the prevailing approach in rugby to “train the person, not the player”. Those players simultaneously developing their post-rugby career and personal development tend to outperform those focused solely on a narrower set of skills and perspectives. This is another way in which the areas we work on at Mightify all connect: you cannot separate “wellbeing” as some sort of mythical standalone concept from physical health, mental health, career, purpose, life outside the job or any other aspect that makes us all individuals.

These areas all need to be proactively supported. People in the emergency services are undervalued, underinvested in and taken for granted. The regular UK Armed Forces would just about fit into Wembley stadium – and are rightly offered transition help, funding and support. The UK emergency services counts upwards of 300,000 people in its number – and are expected to just sort themselves out. That’s unacceptable.

I don’t mean to disparage or decry those running conferences or reviews – of course that’s part of progress. However, seeing the same presentations on the same subjects over several years whilst also hearing from those in need that things aren’t improving in any recognisable way doesn’t suggest that the balance is being achieved between conversation and action.

This week also saw the announcement of a Police Covenant which “will enhance support and provide protection for officers, staff and their families”, according to the Home Office. Sounds good on paper – as ever the proof will be in the impact it delivers. Day in, day out, I speak to people who’ve been injured on duty, experience poor mental health, are looking for development and so on – and the vast majority still tell me “the job doesn’t care”. That’s what needs to change through action.

One constant challenge we come up against is this paradox:

Those who most need the help – let’s be simplistic and call them the “frontline” – instantly understand the kind of things we’re trying to do, they ask why these things haven’t existed before, they are willing to participate. Just as with Surfwell.

Those who lead the organisations, hold the budgets and could roll these programmes out, frankly in my experience – often don’t get it and sometimes clearly don’t want to get it either. They don’t want to open Pandora’s box, because a problem admitted is a problem adopted. Short-termism prevails.

At this point I make my usual disclaimer that I do know many excellent, empathetic, supportive leaders and advocates for change at senior levels, in federations and throughout the job. The fact is though, they are in the minority – otherwise we wouldn’t be having these problems in the first place.

There are many theories I could put forward on why this disconnect between the “coalface” and the strategic level exists. A simple one is that the way promotion and service are tied together means that those in charge have often not performed the core work in decades – and we are not living in a world that resembles the 1990s on any societal, economic or cultural level. This carries over into a culture of “top-down” decision making: any new project, whatever it is, needs to have someone with enough rank to lead it. Why? Well… because that’s the way it is. Innovative tech project lead required... must be Superintendent or above. It’s outdated and nonsensical. Rank structure is of course crucial in operational fields, but perhaps we could try to select the right person first, and not worry too much about what’s on their shoulders?

Which leads me onto skills. Almost every person who contacts me wanting to leave the police, fire service, ambulance service, teaching and so on has no idea what they are really capable of, or how to express it. That is in no way their fault – they have been moulded, institutionalised and existed within a solid boundary and restricted by “we’ve always done it this way”.

I’ve written and spoken extensively elsewhere about the dangers of this feeling of being stuck or fenced in. If people don’t feel there are positive options or that they are working in alignment with a purpose, they are often on a road to high-risk or destructive behaviours, unhealthy relationships with alcohol, gambling, any vice you name. Because all the stress, trauma and pressure built up in an environment where the impossible or superhuman is demanded most days, under a microscope of scrutiny and armchair quarter-backing, on no sleep, with inadequate training – I could go on – has to be released somehow.

Long ago, we understood the concept of being proactive in safety equipment. Everyone wears a stab-proof vest, all the time. Makes sense – much easier to do that than deal with the consequence of not wearing one.

Why is it so hard for some leaders to understand that the same concept applies to the mind, the career, the personality, the skill set? Invest in them proactively and the rewards will come back many times over. We always hear “public services should be run more like a business”, so let’s actually see some of that thinking cross over – the return on investment is huge. Having healthy people working in line with their skills and drive means everyone wins: they get huge job satisfaction and a fulfilling career. The organisation they represent becomes lean, efficient and highly productive. The communities they serve get the best possible outcomes, which in this case means inspiring education, safe streets, world-class healthcare – I’d say those are goals worth chasing.

What will I be writing in September 2021?

As I said, I am an optimist and I refuse to back away from this, however unachievable it might seem and however tempting it might be to focus our efforts on a sector where those in power actually listen or care. Surfwell, and several other schemes around similar concepts, offer hope – change being led by the people who really understand it. I’m honoured to be part of the fledgling National Police Suicide Prevention Group and hope that the expertise contained therein can push things forward.

We’re at a stage now where we know what the issues are. We know that we can mitigate them, reduce their impact and recover from them. It will take a combined, collaborative and committed effort, but the skills are there. Alongside some other dedicated professionals, we’ve been proud to help many people despite having almost zero budget and being very much on the outside. Imagine what we could achieve if those with the real power to deliver change stepped up – it will take some vulnerability, some strong leadership, some courage and a willingness to do things that haven’t been done before. Firstly, that should be what leaders are doing anyway. Secondly, we cannot continue as we are, so doing nothing is not an option.