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Supervisory support is critical for supporting stress and post-trauma incidents

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Research published today reports that a large proportion of police officers describe 'good, supportive supervision' as the best way of being assisted following a traumatic incident.

The research, led by Dr Margaret Mitchell of the Police Research Unit, Glasgow Caledonian University, found that the most common form of post-incident support provided by UK police services was 'critical incident stress debriefing' (CISD). The main objectives of debriefing were judged to be: providing information; giving an opportunity for group discussion; and the prevention of ill health. Many organisations thought that CISD could prevent the acquisition of post-traumatic stress disorder, and reduce sickness absence. However, the researchers found little evidence to support this view.

The report, 'Managing post-incident reactions in the police service', went on to examine the extent and effects of officers reactions to traumatic incidents in Strathclyde Police and the Royal Ulster Constabulary. The aim was to compare experience of trauma in two different policing environments and the role of personal factors, which may determine how officers cope with incidents.

In Strathclyde, a total of 1245 questionnaires were distributed and 612 were completed, giving a response rate of 49.1%. Those sampled included officers in traffic, mobile, and foot patrol, firearms, the female and child unit, CID, scene of crime and the support unit.

The RUC sample mirrored that of Strathclyde, except that superintendents were included in the RUC sample. A total of 1600 questionnaires were distributed, with 768 being completed, a response rate of 46.5%.

The questionnaire focused on police work, general health, trauma experience and personal coping mechanisms for traumatic incidents. A pressure management tool was also included to measure the sources of occupational stress and its consequences.

In both forces, some positive factors were identified as helping officers cope with post trauma symptoms. These included: managerial support, control over the work, a positive outlook, organisational commitment, and job satisfaction. On the other hand, poor working relationships, a lack of social support, and a negative view of the job were all linked to the development of symptoms after a traumatic incident.

The research also found that when a traumatic incident coincided with other workplace dissatisfaction, then the work could seem overwhelming. The presence of supervisory support then became crucial.

Elizabeth Gyngell, a senior policy manager in HSE's Health Directorate, said:

"We are seeing time and time again that having a supportive managerial environment is essential for employee well-being.

"Managers who support their employees are likely to be rewarded by having a work force that is open and prepared to work in partnership to tackle work-related challenges. Those who do not offer support, particularly after an employee has been exposed to a traumatic event, may find that their staff are less able to cope, or are not willing to share, their concerns at an early stage."

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