'It will get worse before it gets better' - concern over level of mental health sick leave at Suffolk police
PUBLISHED: 07:32 14 October 2019 | UPDATED: 08:12 14 October 2019
Concerns have been raised about the pressure being put on front line officers after it was revealed a third of all sickness leave at Suffolk police is related to mental ill health.
The force lost 139,937 hours to sickness in the year to August 1, 2019, equating to more than 18,500 standard working days.
The data was released following a freedom of information act request, which also asked how many of those sick days were the result of mental ill health.
Responding to the enquiry, Suffolk Constabulary said officers and civilian staff took a combined 46,481 hours - or the equivalent of 6,197 days based on a 7.5 hour shift - off sick because of mental health issues.
The force said sickness absence is recorded in terms of hours rather than days due to the "differing shift patterns worked by officers and members of staff".
The figures have raised concerns that staff are not coping with the difficult situations they face on the job.
Darren Harris, chairman of the Suffolk Police Federation, said: "I do believe that this rise in mental health issues is down to the cuts in police numbers and the rise in crime over the last nine years.
"A third of sickness being down to mental health is a very high proportion."
Pc John Clarke, who is currently signed off sick from Suffolk police having suffered with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), described the figures as "scary".
Earlier this year he revealed how his health deteriorated after attending a series of fatal road accidents and horrific life-or-death calls, to the point that he tried to take his own life.
He said: "With the pressures put on front line staff it was only a matter of time before people started feeling the effects of it. We are now reaching a point where more and more officers, and staff, are showing signs of stress."
Pc Clarke has been using his Instagram channel to share his recovery journey, and offers a very frank insight into the ups and downs of his mental illness.
He added: "Because I have been so open, others are now becoming more aware of the impact front line policing can have on your mental health. Only the other day a colleague spoke to me and said he is no longer able to attend certain incidents, and that he wants to deal with it before he reaches the point I did."
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Support is in place for staff who have dealt with serious incidents, including de-briefs with senior officers and a round-the-clock telephone counselling service, but Pc Clarke believes the damage has already been done for those who have been in service for many years.
"I can see it getting worse before it gets better," he said. "With so many off sick, it is impacting those who are still working."
Staff are often offered a staggered return to work following illness, some are put on restricted or light duties to ease them back in.
But Mr Harris explained this can be complicated when someone has been off with a mental illness.
"With a physical injury it's easy," he said. "If an officer has a broken leg then they can come back and file paperwork with a cast on but with mental health it's a lot harder to assess what someone is ready for.
"However, I see this as a very positive thing. We are sure that getting officers to return to work gradually means that in the long run they stay there."
He also reassured those concerned about the impact this level of sickness has on the number of officers out on the front line.
"The public's main concern is that when they call there won't be someone who comes to help them. But that's not true," he said.
Lauren Soames, Head of Workplace Health, Safety & Wellbeing for Norfolk and Suffolk Constabularies, said: "We take our duty of care to all our employees very seriously.
"In circumstances where staff are unable to return to front line duties we do everything we can to assist them through return to work programmes."
She also explained that there is help at hand for staff who are struggling with mental ill health.
"We have a traumatic incident debrief process, Employee Assistance Programme (EAP), and proactive wellbeing initiatives and sessions, as well as the Walnut Tree service, based in Suffolk and Norfolk, that includes immediate and round-the-clock support for staff and officers living with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), trauma and complex mental ill health."