Worrying data[i] from the mental health charity Mind has found that nearly 9 in 10 (87 per cent) emergency services staff and volunteers surveyed have experienced stress, low mood and poor mental health at some point while working for the emergency services.
The online survey of over 3,500 emergency services personnel also revealed that more than half (55 per cent) had experienced mental health problems at some point. This is in sharp contrast to findings of the general workforce from the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD)[ii], which reveal 26 per cent of respondents had experienced a mental health problem – indicating that working in emergency services is associated with a greater risk of developing poor mental health.
Despite the greater prevalence of mental health problems among emergency services personnel, Mind’s research indicates that they are less likely to take time off sick as a result. Just 43 per cent of emergency service workers and volunteers surveyed said they have taken time off work due to poor mental health. The CIPD has found that this figure is much higher among the general workforce, with nearly three in five (57 per cent) saying they had needed time off for poor mental health. This suggests that emergency service workers find it harder than other professions to say when they’re not at their best and keep coming to work regardless. It could be that personnel are fearful of talking about mental health at work or don’t believe their employers view mental health problems as valid reasons for sickness absence.
The initial findings of the research are to be revealed at the programme launch event hosted by the Cabinet Office which will take place today (Friday 6 March). The breakfast event will include speeches from Mind’s Chief Executive Paul Farmer; Chief Constable at Leicestershire Police Simon Cole QPM; and Eleanor Hathaway of Oxfordshire Fire and Rescue Service, on her personal experience of a mental health problem.
Staff and volunteers in the emergency services have already been identified as at higher risk of developing a mental health problem, due to the unique set of difficulties these challenging roles present. However this data is the first to reveal the scale of the problem and the level of unmet need. Mind has received £4m in funding from LIBOR fines to deliver a programme supporting ‘Blue Light’ personnel with their mental health.
Paul Farmer, Chief Executive of Mind, said:
“Not only are many of our blue light personnel struggling with their mental health, but they’re less likely to seek support or have time off sick than the general workforce. The programme we’ll be delivering over the next year aims to ensure that the estimated quarter of a million people working and volunteering within police, ambulance, fire and search and rescue divisions are able to talk openly about their mental health and access the support they need to stay well, recover and continue doing the vital and challenging roles they do serving the community.
“Since Mind was awarded the funding and we have begun work on the project, we have been really encouraged by the response from everyone we have spoken to. There is a clear consensus that this is an issue that needs tackling and it’s clear that the will is there to address it.”
Eleanor Hathaway works for Oxfordshire Fire and Rescue Service and has personal experience of depression. Her employer was really supportive when she disclosed her experiences at work, but she was fearful of speaking out in the first place. Eleanor said:
“Part of me was concerned that my colleagues would think, ‘If she can’t cope with something mentally, she shouldn’t be here’. Part of me was concerned about how I’d be dealt with. And part of me was confused. How do you explain why you’re so upset, when you don’t know yourself?”
The Blue Light programme has been developed in consultation with emergency service staff and volunteers and will be delivered between April 2015 and March 2016, involving local Minds and professional bodies, employers, charities and unions that represent emergency services staff and volunteers.
Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg said: “Emergency service workers save lives every day, helping people in trouble or in need, but we need to support them as they deal with the incredibly stressful and sometimes harrowing situations they face in the line of duty. “That’s why, at the end of last year, we asked Mind to work with our emergency services personnel to develop and trial a new package of front-line mental health support. So I’m delighted that this programme is now underway. “We still have a long way to go to break down the stigma around mental health but with initiatives like this we’re helping to drive a culture change so that one day we’ll see parity of esteem between physical and mental health.”
Mind is urging emergency services organisations to register their interest in signing the Blue Light Time to Change pledge – a commitment to develop meaningful action plans to support the wellbeing of their staff and volunteers. The action plans will follow the model developed by Time to Change, the anti-stigma campaign run by Mind and Rethink Mental Illness, but will be more tailored to the emergency services needs. Simon Cole, Chief Constable at Leicestershire Police, said: “Signing the pledge is a public statement of Leicestershire Police’s commitment to improve the way we deal with issues relating to mental health and wellbeing. It will empower our officers and staff to talk about mental health and wellbeing confidently and to respond to both colleagues and the public appropriately.”
[ii]Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD), December 2011, ‘Focus on mental health in the Workplace’ http://www.cipd.co.uk/hr-resources/survey-reports/employee-outlook-focus-managing-supporting-mental-health-work.aspx
[i]Mind, December 2014, online survey of 3627 emergency services staff and volunteers