One in 10 Northern Ireland police officers off sick for 'psychological reasons'

By Sarah McKinley and Jordan Moore

Almost 800 police officers in Northern Ireland have taken time off in the last year for "psychological reasons".

A total of 776 officers were off on sick leave for a range of reasons including depression, anxiety, stress or post-traumatic stress between April 1, 2022 and March 31, 2023.

That is almost 25% more than the figure for the year before - 629 officers were off due to psychological reasons for the previous 12 months.

The statistics were obtained by UTV through Freedom of Information after a number of officers said they were off sick because they were struggling to cope with the workload and pressures involved in their job.

Some may find the data startling - but not the Police Federation of Northern Ireland (PFNI), who witness these issues every day.

"More work... less people."

This is a summary of the state of affairs from the PFNI's treasurer, Elaine McCormill.

Speaking to UTV about the figures, she said she is actually surprised that more staff are not off sick due to psychological issues.

Ms McCormill said that with well documented financial pressures facing the force, wages starting at £23,000 in a job that involves facing risk and trauma on a daily basis, and staffing pressures that means days off can be few and far between, "the whole policing world takes over officers' personal and professional life" these days.

"The well-publicised reduction in our officers due to the lack of budget the Chief Constable has means that he can't recruit and fill the gap of those people who are leaving the service, whether it's retirement or resigning for other jobs," she said.

"So that means we have less officers but the workload hasn't decreased, in fact that's increasing. So we're having a lot more work having to be dealt with by a lot less people."

Ms McCormill was asked how how she felt the PSNI was supporting colleagues through mentally challenging times.

"Well, to be fair to the PSNI, they have implemented quite a considerable amount of psychological assistance, although it's down to personal responsibility," she said.

"There's a lot of signposting in relation to a lot of resources that officers can use.

"However, that does include the personal responsibility, and my personal opinion is that the organisation itself has a bigger obligation to look after its staff."

"Again, unfortunately, due to the budget in relation to our own occupational health, they're under immense pressure just with the sheer volume of referrals to them and they're not able to meet that," she said, adding that the wait for a counsellor can be as long as eight months.

Ms McCormill says that there are also mechanisms in place to support staff returning to work post-sickness, but that sometimes this is "shallow" and does not happen in practice.

"There's facilities through their line management and occupational health where they can return on a phased return and reasonable adjustments and able to place them in a position where their reintegration back in the workplace as done as easy as possible.

"However, we work in an organisation where the demand is so great that sometimes, that can be quite shallow and the intention is absolutely there, but actually the reality of it is that they're back in the thick of it straight away... And that just can sometimes then revert people back to where they were in the first place. "

The cost-of-living crisis is crippling indiscriminately, and other public services, especially in education and communities, are set to be cut beyond recognition.

"When people are running away, we run towards the problem. That's our job," Ms McCormill said.

"We have very heroic police officers who go over and above beyond to help the community and keep them safe.

"That's what we do. And we will continue to do that. The difficulty of that is that that impacts that officer on their own personal level as well, because they have to go home at night with that in their mind.

"So, my concern for our officers is that actually we've very little sympathy from the public, they think that some of the things that we say are anecdotal, but I can assure you that the trauma that they experience and that they suffer themselves is very, very real."

Asked if there was anything that could be done to ease the situation aside from growing the fictional but often mentioned "magic money tree", Ms McCormill admitted that it does all boil down to resources.

"Certainly, reducing our resources even further is going to create even more pressure for us. We need the resources to deal with the demand.

"Otherwise the communities and the public aren't going to have the police service that they deserve."

The PSNI has been vocal about budget issues and the Chief Constable has laid bare the impact he fears cuts will have on the ability of the force to do the job it is there to do.

On Thursday, it emerged one of the helicopters may have to be grounded to save cash.

If the PSNI cannot afford to recruit more officers, it needs to look after the ones it has on the books already.

Clare Duffield is Chief Officer for People and Organisational Development with the PSNI.

"Like other employers, we will see an increase in that over the coming years, so it's really important we value the health and wellbeing of our police officers and our police staff, so we have a wide range of services to help prevent, intervene early, and support and member of our staff," she said.

"We want to build a resilient workforce through trauma informed practice and education. And on the ground, we have a post-incident peer support team.

"We also have accredited wellbeing volunteers.

"We have a range of occupational health and wellbeing services as well with clinicians who support our workforce in a variety of ways, and those are tiered interventions that we have in lower level and high intensity trauma treatments, for example.

"We have different waiting times depending on the service that the individual requires," she said.

Assistant Chief Officer Duffield was asked if it was true that it can take over eight months to see an occupational therapist within the PSNI.

She responded: "We are committed to ensuring that every member of staff or police officer who is referred to Occupational Health and wellbeing services has an initial assessment that's on average around 10 days, and that will then help direct us to what is the most appropriate treatment or service that they might require.

"That could be for mental health conditions, cognitive behavioural therapy, or more intensive trauma treatment.

"But we also have referrals for physiotherapy services, for fit, for work, assessments because of the nature of the work of our officers. Those are all different services that we provide on."

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