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February 11, 2020

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Counselling for officers should do more to prevent mental health issues, says former prison officer

In 2019, almost 2,000 prison officers took absences from work in England and Wales, as a result of their mental health and pressures from work.

prisonThe BBC reported that the number of absences showed a significant increase on previous years, weighing the importance of organisations providing health and wellbeing support for employees in difficult roles.

A freedom for information (FOI) report found that 1,000 prison officers were absent due to stress last year, and another 800 reported sick with anxiety and depression. A government audit of the Scottish Prison Service also revealed that there is a 60% increase in prison officers taking sick absences in Scottish prisons, with stress being the most common cause.

A Scottish Prison Service spokesperson said: “Prison officers work in a difficult and intensive environment that can, at times, be dangerous. We provide a range of measures and interventions to support our staff, and our employee wellbeing policy incorporates a wide range of proactive support mechanisms to improve health and attendance.”

In an interview with the BBC, former prison officer, Allan Jones, explained an incident that impacted his mental health. He explained: “I responded to an alarm bell with two prisoners fighting. I managed to break up the fight partially by restraining a prisoner, whereupon the other prisoner got up and managed to break my arm with a metal chair. When something like this happens, you’re assaulted, then it brings everything home to you.” Allan successfully sued the Ministry of Justice for failing to handle the incident properly.

The affect is not only on the officers, but their immediate families can also be impacted. Allan further explained: “I didn’t realise how badly it was affecting me, it was my wife that noticed all of this. She had to live through the whole thing, she’s having to see her husband sitting on the sofa just staring into space.” He told the BBC that his mental health suffered due to the lack of support. “I always thought that I’d be covered and if anything happened, the prison service would have something in place to look after me.”

A spokesperson for the Prison Service in England and Wales said: “The safety and wellbeing of our staff is paramount and, because prison officers work in a demanding environment, we give them access to services including 24/7 counselling, trauma support and occupational health.”

SHP recently reported that the most common reason for unexplained sick days in the UK, is due to mental health issues, yet workers are still unable to have a conversation about it with their employers, according to Savoy Stewart.

Emma Mamo, Head of Workplace Wellbeing at Mind, emphasised that when an employee does take sick leave, it is crucial for managers to keep the lines of communication open. “It can be helpful to explore how roles, responsibilities and hours can be adjusted, which should always be done in consultation with the member of staff. When someone is ready to come back to work, it can help to slowly build up their normal working hours as part of a phased return.”

Leatham Green, Executive Director of the Public Services People Managers Association, said it was unrealistic to expect workers in frontline services, such as prison officers and social workers, to be able to carry out their jobs consistently for years, and that staff in these roles required breaks from such pressure and responsibility to continue to do their jobs effectively. “we have the flexibility [to provide this], but organisations don’t do it. You’re just left in there, and eventually you will be worn down” Leatham said.

Mr Green also mentioned that support services should focus on ways to prevent mental health in work environments, and not just helping them after the consequences. He said, “you might have 24/7 access to counselling, but that’s dealing with the effect of pressures, that’s not actually preventing it from happening in the first place.”

Tom Neil, Senior Adviser at Acas, said all employers had a duty of care to their employees, and must do all they reasonably can to support their health, safety and wellbeing. “This includes making sure the working environment is safe, protecting staff from discrimination and carrying out risk assessments,” he said.

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