A Job Worth Doing (November 2005)

A Job Worth Doing - An Invited Address
The Northern Region, Retired & Serving Commissioned Officers Dinner, 2nd November 2005. With Roger F. Peters RFD

1. Introduction

My address tonight is the product of at least three attempts. Many, if not thousands of thoughts have continuously been running through my mind since Supt. Dave Swilks invited me, now nearly a year ago. I rather wish that he had rung me just a few weeks ago because it would have undoubtedly reduced what has been a long period of bewilderment and tension as to what I should talk about.

I thought I might begin by saying that my credentials for being here tonight are simply that for more than 20 years I have professionally assisted over 2000 cops. I am certainly appreciative for the awards and commendations I have received over the years, but these pale into insignificance compared to the profound sense of meaning this work has given my life.  For that I thank my clients who have surely taught me as much about life as I ever taught them.

I sought guidance from some of you here tonight and for your suggestions I am grateful.  I have accepted at least one thing and it's that this is a night of celebration and camaraderie, not a night for poor humour and pessimism. Yet there are compelling human issues that need to be better understood and I propose to cover just two of these tonight; i.e., firstly, the question of burnout. Then, rehabilitating police, in particular those referred to as "pre 1988" enlisted officers.

2. The Importance of Meaning

Working with police, as I say, has given my life more meaning than I am sure it would have otherwise. It was Viktor Frankl who said, "happiness comes from meaning and that meaning doesn't come from happiness", (Man's search for Meaning). So too, it is, I suspect, that policing brings your own lives meaning and the reason you are or have been at different times prepared to put your lives on the line. Likewise because of this same commitment you have been also prepared to forgo your family's immediate needs, and certainly your own, for the benefit of our community. Then, of course, there are those who pay by way of psychological damage so frequently evidenced by the vast numbers of veteran police who didn't quite make it to the point they had anticipated, but instead have had to prematurely end their careers.

After re-reading the first address I wrote, now many months ago, I thought that if I really meant what I said then it was perhaps I that should be in treatment. While it certainly was not quite in the Mark Latham style, it was brutal enough. It was cathartic, an emptying out, and a libation, if you will, of my own pain that I have picked up on the way. That is the psychological cost one experiences in seeing, time and time again the injuries of police officers, suffering both the physical and psychological kind.  In fact it is in fact the stuff that goes to make up professional burnout, one of the themes I will take up a little later in respect to police.

3. Stress and Policing

In setting the scene for my two themes tonight I must cover just two or three important domains. Psychological injuries for police are common with recent overseas research suggesting that perhaps 20% of emergency services are destined to suffer posttraumatic stress disorder (Lindahl 2004). I specifically mention this statistic, one based on overseas research to emphasis that the problem is universal, not parochial i.e., not just a morbidity rate peculiar to the NSW Police Force. However Australian research also indicates that in those organisations where employees feel supported and affirmed PTSD can be reduced by as much as 50% (Cotton 2005). So often when I see and comment on these critical issues or write about them I feel there is a collective cringe. I was at least buoyed by Commissioner Maroney saying to me the day before he took office that he "didn't shoot messengers", because for all my faults and failings I am a passionate and persistent messenger in respect to mental health and the welfare of our police.

There are several points worth making. The first is in respect to the adverse and pessimistic view police sometimes take by uttering the acronym TJF. I was trying to identify the history of this and was told by one officer recently that a retired officer he was speaking to (who joined in 1952) said it was being said then.  It got me to thinking and questioning, is this is in fact a generational view and that "ground zero" simply readjusts itself for each subsequent generation? My nephew who has been in the job just 3 years doesn't think TJF at all; in fact all his expectations are being met. He is thriving in the job that he loves. I think while some talk of the good old days being 1986, I recall that officers I was seeing then were talking about the good old days being in 1976. So it goes, I suspect as I said this is a generational response that occurs when the officer's expectations are not met and the drive is lost. This may come down to being unable to cope with change but especially make adjustment to one's expectations. Another way to see this is that when cultures clash those fixed into an earlier paradigm of policing will be in conflict with those within an emerging paradigm, indeed as a result these are the officers who predictably will be most likely to utter TJF.

However, a word of caution here, if this cynicism and negativity pervade the individual view then sadly what might be lost for them is the contribution and significant difference that they may have made as a police officer. The fundamental essence of what it is to be a police officer is to serve and protect and this never changes, it is a sacred trust. Thus the vocation of policing should never be confused with the politics of policing. In fact the actual job is anything but TJF and never will be.

Thirdly, there is a common misunderstanding in respect to the experience of stress in policing. Perhaps this may be best conveyed in the following story and one I have used before. A friend of mine in cleaning up some of his late father's possessions came across a diary. He showed me an entry some 18 months before his father's retirement, "I am so depressed I am drinking too much, I am hurting my family -when will it ever end?" I think you can agree that whoever wrote this was indeed distressed and in fact a person clearly at risk. However the diary didn't belong to a senior constable but a Chief Inspector, nor was it written in 1996, but 1976. You see, I think this type of evidence dispels two ideas; the first is that police stress is a new phenomenon and secondly, that it is the domain of only malcontent senior constables.  Police stress is certainly talked about more and indeed many are now prepared to "come out", but certainly it's anything but new. Perhaps this civilian combat fatigue is inevitable, I sometimes wonder who indeed makes it through unscathed?

4. A Place for Compassion and Forgiveness?

A final observation before moving onto my two themes for this evening: Most of us here saw the recent episode of Australian Story (The shooting down Tumut way). I was stung by the extent of the animosity, not just between the family and police but also between the ex serving members toward the NSW Police Force. One officer said, "I would rather eat broken glass than be in the police". Then of course the sister of the deceased stopped only just short of wanting to gaol the officer who shot her brother - saying venomously "I suppose he has to live with it the rest of his life", (surely a modern day curse). That story in many ways seemed to encapsulate so much about the challenges of being a police officer and indeed the cost that might have to be paid and, of course, by his or her family.

Yet so often I see a lack of compassion in how you treat each other even just on a day-to-day basis. Small matters that deserve admonishment are destined to become major inquiries. Good intentions are so often confused with corruption and this makes the pain worse. Families are so often caught up in all of this as probably no better exemplified even in our own Region, the so called "bulldogs affair" is just one of these. Again there are officers who have had no allegations proven but are vilified by supposed "patterns of behaviour". Officers who beat the system are seen as simply cheating the system.

In all of this there is so often not even a modicum of true human compassion. Yours is an organisation where rumours and gossip flourish and just add to the toxicity. Can it stop? Can a culture that has grown in this way over so many years change? If the answer to this is no, then as I explain to those that see me professionally you had better learn ways to become, as an organisation and as police officers, more resilient. In this regard I would however like to speak to you about the antithesis of resilience, the first of two themes tonight i.e., burnout. Burnout is of course the ultimate inability to continue to maintain psychological poise or resilience.

5. Burnout

I am not one for definitions but I think the pedagogy of this is important. Pines and Aronson (1981) noted that burnout is "characterised by physical depletion, by feelings of helplessness and hopelessness, by emotional drain, and by the development of negative self-concept and negative attitudes towards work, life and other people...It is a sense of distress, discontent, and failure in the quest for ideals" (p 15). Freudenberger and Richelson (1980) described burnout as a "state of fatigue or frustration brought about by devotion to a cause, way of life, or relationship that failed to produce the expected reward", (p 13). Edelwich and Brodsky (1980) defined burnout as a "progressive loss of idealism, energy, purpose, and concern as a result of conditions of work" (p 14).

Burnout is of course subjectively experienced, but is as a state of physical, emotional, and mental exhaustion caused by long-term involvement in situations that are emotionally demanding. The emotional demands are most often caused by a combination of very high expectations and chronic situational stresses. Burnout is accompanied by an array of symptoms including physical depletion, feelings of helplessness and hopelessness, disillusionment, and the development of a negative self-concept and negative attitudes towards work, people involved in the work, and life itself. In its extreme form burnout represents a breaking point beyond which the ability to cope with our work environment is severely hampered. Indeed burnout tends to afflict people who enter their professions highly motivated and idealistic, expecting their work to give their lives a sense of meaning. It is a particular hazard in occupations in which professionals tend to experience their work as a kind of "calling" such as policing.

Compassion Fatigue as discussed by Figley (1999) [in Violanti and Paton (1999)], offers a different emphasis in respect to burnout and uses a slightly different focus or schemata. So here, rather than cite a definitional approach to compassion fatigue as earlier with burnout, the following descriptive table aims to provide what Figley (1999) meant but also indicate some of the similar characteristics, seen in the definitional terms of burnout.

Police Compassion Fatigue (PCF)

Cognitive Emotional Behavioural Spiritual Personal Relations Physical/Somatic Work Performance
Lowered concentration, decreased self-esteem, apathy, rigidity, disorientation, perfectionism, minimization, preoccupation with trauma, thoughts of self-harm or harm to others. Powerlessness, anxiety, guilt, anger, range, survivor guilt, shutdown, numbness, fear, helplessness, sadness, depression, emotional roller coaster, depleted, overly sensitive. Impatient, irritable, withdrawn, moody, regression, sleep disturbance, nightmares, appetite changes, hypervigilance, elevated startle response, accident proneness, losing things. Questioning the meaning of life, loss of purpose, lack of self satisfaction, pervasive hopelessness, anger at God, questioning of prior religious beliefs, loss of faith in a higher power, greater scepticism about religion. Withdrawal, decreased interest in intimacy or sex, mistrust, isolation from others, over protection as a parent, projection of anger or blame, intolerance, loneliness, increased interpersonal conflicts. Shock, sweating, rapid heartbeat, breathing difficulties, aches and pains, dizziness, increased number and intensity of medical maladies, other somatic complaints, impaired immune system. Low morale, low motivation, avoiding tasks, obsession about details, apathy, negativity, lack of appreciation, detachment, poor work comm., staff conflicts, absenteeism, exhaustion, irritability, withdrawal from colleagues.

It is interesting that what has happened is that most officers see me who can no longer psychologically carry on are not medically unwell in the specific sense, although they may have many symptoms. They are angry disillusioned, stressed and pessimistic as well as frustrated about the work, their employer and sometimes-specific people. You see, while some officers who see me certainly have PTSD and others undoubtedly have depression, but almost all of those that leave based on psychological grounds, in fact, suffer burnout. This is, I think, a far more accurate description of what ails them.

6. Mis-diagnosis and Misunderstanding

It is not possible however to use this descriptor "burnout", as a differential diagnosis as it doesn't appear in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, or the International Classification of Disorders. Like "stress", it is not a formal illness, injury or diagnosis. For all officers, resigning would be financial suicide and so there is an imperative to medicalise burnout. Burnout then becomes PTSD, Adjustment Disorder and any other diagnostic label that will initiate a medical discharge.

I recall saying to one officer whose symptoms were essentially anger, "mate you can't get a pension for anger".  [Interestingly enough anger has been described as depression with enthusiasm]. While anger, like depression, actually stems from anxiety, these emotions such as anger are simply expressions of our normal mood, even temperament, and as such are not illnesses. For burnout to be an injury it would need to be included in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. Perhaps like 1986, when PTSD was voted into the DSM (lobbied by the Vietnam veteran population) and homosexuality was taken out (lobbied by the homosexual population), burnout and its importance, as a psychological disability will one day be endorsed. But only then will it be legitimately used to explain this common morbidity, one that I believe is an occupational hazard in policing and the basis as to why so many cops leave.

Many officers on the other hand have old orthopaedic injuries that of course deteriorate over time and so these too are often used to assist the process of a medical exit. This occurs from the most senior officers to the lowest rank. It is a culturally endorsed and legitimised.  As you have all heard said, "make sure you get an HOD recognised early in your career as you never know when you might need it", or as a senior officer once said to me, when I questioned their fitness to serve, "Roger this is my 72.5% don't fuck with me HOD leg".

The problem in using orthopaedic injuries as a means to accessing their superannuation entitlements is that we may then never fully understand the true dimension of burnout and other psychological problems within your organisation. Then, because of this distortion and masking of psychological injuries, we may then never fully appreciate the critical impact and cost associated with psychological injuries and burnout.

Before leaving this interesting area, one further and additional problem is that in distorting any illness for the purpose of a pension it can make the officer look other than genuine. But I would emphasises that while the claim may be exaggerated and distorted, the realty remains that in most cases irrespective of the label they usually no longer have the temperament to be an effective operational police officer and as such retaining them becomes a liability.

The key to avoiding burnout is not just about developing individual resilience, even though that's an important part, but additionally whether there are support systems in place and valued by police. Even more importantly in this regard is whether these support systems are effective and are being used are best practice, critical incident stress debriefing and Employee Assistance Programs would be two cases in point where the pedogy is sound but the delivery is poor.

7. Rehabilitation and the Pre 1988 enlisted officer

Yet time is short and so I would like to move on to my second theme tonight, i.e., a specific issue within the general protocol of employee welfare, i.e. rehabilitation. This might seem of all the things that I could discuss, especially at a retired officers dinner, as being one of the least important. For me however it's a matter I feel strongly about. I am also aware that by preaching the word wherever and whenever I get the chance I may hopefully help bring about some impetus to change your policy.

As you know the NSW Police remains split by those officers enlisted prior to 1988 and those afterwards (along with those poor sods in the middle). This group of pre 1988 officers is now obviously smaller than the larger post 1988 majority. Rehabilitation for the later group is straight forward enough. Rehabilitation after the injury means firstly a return to the job in which they were injured, then if that's not possible, rehabilitation to work outside the NSW police. In addition work experience and training may also be included to facilitate a return to some meaningful and dignified work all under the guidance of a rehabilitation specialist.

For pre 1988 officers however rehabilitation is just a departmental policy, not a law, and the current policy is to cease rehabilitation immediately after an application for medical discharge is submitted. After lodging their papers for medical retirement the officer is left for 8 -18 months to wait for that final Wednesday meeting at the end of the month when their fate will be determined by PSAC. The wait is cruel and painful; phone calls from work mates have ceased in the first three months. The occasional welfare check may infrequently still occur, but may seem anything but a true welfare concern. Their "spot" is taken off the manning status, lockers are cleared and he or she finds themselves in some kind of purgatory, where they are not permitted to work, even if they can find some. The organization he or she once loved has distanced themselves from them and they often feel a sense of betrayal and bitterness.

Likewise comments like "you will do alright you will get the pension", is less than helpful especially as people forget that aside from the payment of medical bills the pre 1988 officer gets nothing but the superannuation which he or her has paid for perhaps 30 years. In fact the pre 1988 officer is the only worker in NSW that is afforded no rehabilitation after discharge and is certainly not financially renumerated by workers compensation. A NSW schoolteacher, incidentally, in the same circumstances gets both!

My crusade for 2005-2006 is to have that changed. I get my first opportunity by way of a paper I will present at the next Police Association conference - thereafter I hope my recommendations will be endorsed by the members and from there hopefully have some change made in respect to this unjust policy. I think the attractiveness of my plan is that it only requires a change in policy not legislation. You see, I think that rehabilitation for all officers is integral to treatment and as such is an essential part of any recovery plan, certainly it's critical if there is to be a positive prognosis. For instance you wouldn't expect to be refused physiotherapy if you had a back injury. Likewise I am suggesting that rehabilitation should be part of any treatment of psychological injuries. Ultimately the return to meaningful and dignified work should be the goal of any appropriate psychotherapy and as such should be funded by HOD. You will recall that in the early part of my address I suggested that our true happiness comes from having meaning and certainly work has the potential to provide that.

I realise there are some quite older ex-serving police officers who may say, "but I just want to retire, join the grey nomads and travel Australia". All of which is fine and I accept that a vast number of police will do exactly that. However there are many officers you all know who have been prematurely retired because of physical or psychologically injuries or both, many of who are relatively young and have many good years to give. For them early retirement can mean a loss of dignity, additional distress in losing a career and again often a loss in their sense of meaning or purpose even their identity. There are many pre 1988 officers who are well under 50 who medically retire and those above 50 at least to the age of 60 who are the core population that would undoubtedly benefit from being assisted to find work. Moreover the British Medical Journal as recently as last month published a study of over 3500 men and found that those that retired at 55 years of age were twice as likely to die in the next 10 years when compared with those who kept working. As I said work provides so much more than an income!
At present in order to obtain employment after they have been discharged a retired officer must demonstrate to any prospective employer that they are fit. This might seem be easy to say but what is not easy is to gain employment while at the same time making a frank and open disclosure as to when they left the NSW Police Force. It would be a benevolent employer indeed who agreed to take on a man or woman in their late forties with orthopaedic injuries and who may be seen additionally as being less than psychologically stable due to a condition such PTSD. Thus the pre 1988 police officer will find the open employment market a real challenge and of course this can only add to their sense of lowered self-esteem and sense of worthlessness. I am more than aware that many officers on their own find work after policing, without help I am just suggesting many don't and nor should they have to without at least the opportunity to be given assistance. What I am suggesting is that already there is a system in place that could help these officers but only if HOD Branch would embrace the idea of extending the offer of rehabilitation beyond the period it presently does.

This initially would simply require a referral by a mental health professional or a general practitioner for "treatment" by way of rehabilitation and that in turn be accepted by HOD branch. You see rehabilitation is the key to returning any officer to a dignified place in society. It is the end point of treatment, and it is I believe the ultimate demobilisation from what Charles Figley refers to as "civilian combat".

If you have the power in this place to support this when this initiative is placed before the Association's membership I ask you to endorse it - and that this offer of rehabilitation will be then the basis of more comprehensive employee assistance for all police who joined before 1988 and in doing so bring this entitlement in line with those who joined after 1988.

8. Thankyou

I want to thank you for your kind invitation tonight and as always I will continue to unceasingly support all police officers and I will continue to be convinced that like yours "It's a job worth doing".

Back to top