It’s been a little while since I last checked in. I hate to say that I have been busy, particularly when I speak to my colleagues still in the job, but I have been occupying my time and my mind, trying to understand what it is about the culture of policing that make it so difficult for us to talk about how we feel.
So where am I now?
Well my exams have been sat, my assignments written and I haven’t done so bad, and now I am working on my dissertation – hoping for a distinction in my Masters.
So what is my dissertation?
My dissertation examines emotional labour in the police and how this is linked to burnout.
Title: A study into the relationship between emotional labour and burnout of police officers within Greater Manchester Police.
Okay. Super.. but how does this relate to the experience of the Reflective Detective and the wellbeing of police officers at large?
Well.. emotional labour is the work we do to disguise how we are really feeling – but for a commercial (or in this case, a policing) reason. Arlie Hochschild wrote a book called ‘The Managed Heart’ in 1983 and she explored emotional labour and its impact on the individual.
Emotional labour is divided into surface acting and deep acting: where surface acting sees us act out the required emotion without changing our internal feelings, deep acting is when we try and engage our internal feeling and align them with the required emotion.
What feelings the organisation requires us to experience or display depend upon the ‘feeling rules’ and ‘display rules’ of that culture.
…they are the times we want to scream and shout, or to dissolve into giggles when it just wouldn’t be right. When we take a deep breath when someone else doesn’t manage their emotions towards us, and it smarts – but we don’t complain because that wouldn’t be right/corporate/professional or just polite (we are after all British).
For police officers it is what you would expect – not crying when you deliver a death message to parents, not running away in fear when someone more scared than you thrusts a gun/knife/broken bottle at your head. Not being rude to the child sex offender you just convicted, but treating everyone with respect, even when they do spit on you.. It really is about keeping your head when the evidence around you suggests you should just run: essentially, not letting the people who depend on you see your fear.
But it is also the place where you stand alone in a crowded and busy locker room at the end of a shift, and everyone in your team (including you) is laughing and joking about the pub fight you just dealt with, where the main protagonists wielded knives and machetes, and really you were scared all along, and suspect they were too. It’s the hours in the night, long after you should have finished your shift, and you are on your own in a deserted police station, pulling together a handover file for the prisoner you just arrested, who had stated that they wanted to kill you – and did their best to prove it – but now it is the accuracy of paperwork that seems the most pressing matter.. It’s when you walk into the station shaking, bruised and spattered with someone else’s blood.. and being asked to respond to a reported shoplifter.. it’s sitting down to dinner with your loved ones and discussing the latest episode of GoT, when really all you can think about is the kid you just stopped from jumping off the bridge.
This discrepancy between felt and displayed emotion is known as emotional dissonance, and it is directly linked to burnout..
There is no question that police officers have to manage their emotions in difficult circumstances: that is what the job is and that is what is needed to get it done. Undisputed. Sometimes police officers manage their emotions to influence the emotions of others (think angry man, scared child, the frantic parent) but there comes a point where they need to deal with all these emotions and all that they encounter in the routine of their work.
My argument is that there should be room, back at the station, back within the work place with other people who share the same experiences, for bobbies to be able to talk openly about how the work they do affects them.
…and then there is the ‘deep acting’, where officers time and time again empathise with the victims they support.. until emotionally, they are exhausted. Burnout.
At the moment we don’t just carry out emotion work when we most need to – out on the street holding the thin blue line, but it continues into our culture, back in to what should be the safety of canteens, offices, gyms, locker rooms..
Research demonstrates that just the perception that you are able to talk about your emotions post traumatic event is enough to start mitigating the emotional impact of that trauma – that’s all it takes, not even the talking but just a supportive atmosphere that indicates that it is okay to feel.
And I think that is the crux of my point. It is okay to feel.
It’s not weak. It doesn’t mean ‘you’re not up to the job’. It means you are human – probably a good skill to have as a cop..
And yes, we can’t always express our authentic emotions – there are times in all walks of life/organisation/society/lunch with the in-laws when we have to convey an emotion that isn’t authentic to our inner and truest feelings, but when these emotions are negative, impactive, distressing or just straight overwhelming, we need to acknowledge them, deal with them and let them go on their way, long before they hurt us permanently.
It is my belief that organisations who ask their employees to expose themselves to the most distressing, horrifying or terrifying aspects of life on a routine basis have a responsibility to support them with their personal outcomes, to support them with their mental health, their coping, their positive wellbeing.
So can I make a difference?
How can I hope to influence what is a large and complex organisation with a culture that stretches back almost 200 years..?
Well, it is my intention to try.
I am starting by giving my colleagues their voice – an authentic voice that gives them the opportunity to say how it is for them – but with the security of confidentiality.
But I want to do it in such a way that it can’t be ignored, that is credible and relates to a reality that goes to the heart of what it is to be a police officer.
So my research captures the emotional narrative of police officers living and breathing the job through the recording of diaries.
Each one has a story and I want them to tell that story, exactly as it is – inner emotions and displayed emotions. Hidden fears, anxieties and frustrations. And the passion for why they do what they do.
From this I am going to work out just exactly what the rules around feeling and displaying emotion are within our organisation.
Then I am going to take this collective voice and give it a platform, a place from where it can be heard.
And this is my dissertation.
…but also it will be my thesis.
Recently I have been really lucky enough to have been awarded a scholarship at Manchester Metropolitan University to undertake a PhD. programme, and yes my thesis is on emotional labour in the emergency services, authenticity of emotion and the impact this has on burnout.
I am not stopping here. Not until we can speak, and be heard.
PS when I googled Police and emotional stress I got a picture of someone holding a glass of wine and another holding a pint of beer…