#5 Exploring Emotions At Work: Next Steps for the Reflective Detective.


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.

The Managed Heart

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..

Police Stress

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..?

Peeler attitude

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…




The Reflective Detective #2

(Continued from The Reflective Detective #1)

In my wisdom I fought for a place as a Detective Inspector back covering the South of the city.  I knew that this was the hardest place to work, but now that I was on the accelerated promotion scheme I was really keen to prove my operational credibility.

So one sunny day in early spring I paraded on as DI SJ Lennie – the station was pretty quiet, no one else around, so I found what I presumed was my office and sat down and waited for the computer to flicker into life.  Not long after I had sat down the Detective Sergeant for the intelligence unit came in and talked me through a piece of intelligence which led to a ‘Threat To Life’.  A ‘Threat To Life’ in police context is a high level strand of intelligence where the police believe that someone’s life is under significant and imminent threat.  Needless to say I was late off that night, and the next.. and after that.

Days turned into weeks, turned into months.. turned into exhaustion.

I have a high level of commitment to detail and professionalism, I always seek to identify and minimise risk.  I take responsibility and can’t walk away until the job is done; to the best possible level.  I always look after my staff and support them through the challenges we face – I need to be there for them, I need to be strong for them… and we faced many challenges.  At the beginning I knew that I would have a heightened level of stress, that I would worry about every angle of every day, I expected this to level out as I became more comfortable with my role, but with each new investigation, with every new death, threat, kidnapping, rape, shooting, attempt murder, robbery.. I became more afraid.

I can pin the moments when it was beginning to dawn on me that something wasn’t right.  The first night that I didn’t sleep one second, but was so completely wired that I got out of bed at seven and went for a run and then on to a full day – without blinking.  The moment when I was driving to another death and my husband called me (hands free!) to ask if we could visit family that Sunday, and I realised that I couldn’t because I had an assignment to submit (did I mention that as part of the promotion scheme I was studying for an MSc. with Warwick University) and cried until I reached the scene, then got out of the car and climbed into my white paper suit.  When I was regularly working fourteen/fifteen hour days, and resented my job for not allowing me to see my husband (we had only been married six months) because I was too scared to stop working and go home.  When I worked 24.5 hours none stop and went back into work after six hours, only to work another twelve.  When I couldn’t stop crying when I did get home. When my heart rate was so high I didn’t feel I could get enough air – when I was lying in bed.  When I felt so alone in my office and that I was the only one left to manage all the risk… when I came home and begged my husband to help me make it stop.

I give myself some credit for my self-awareness.  I knew I was suffering and I knew that if I didn’t make changes I was going to suffer a lot worse.  I had heard about the brilliant hard working officers that one day couldn’t get out of bed and spent months ill.  I needed to make changes.  I went and spoke with my DCI, he listened – and gave me lots of reassurance and a little pep talk.  No, I was doing the right thing, yes, the SMT thought I was doing a great job – which is why they were leaving me alone to carry on, and yes, everyone feels the way I did from time to time.

Excellent – I’m a top banana and everyone feels terrified in the police… surely this isn’t right?

I sought some counselling and tried to carry on with my role.  I spoke to people a lot and tried to be rational with my thinking… but in the end…

I clearly remember my last job as a DI.  It was a cold winter’s day, I was stood out in the middle of a field in a pair of wellies and a white SOCO suit, instructing the cadaver dog handler to look for a dead baby.  A couple of hours earlier I had been in my office deciphering letters written by the absent parents (post finger printing) who wanted to be reunited with their child.  Ten years ago I would have been looking for little signs as to how I could find them, who they were, what had happened… on this day it was all I could do to fight back the tears as I became overwhelmed with the sadness of their loss and desperation; I couldn’t see the words, never mind find the clues.  I was completely emotionally compromised…  I knew I couldn’t lead my team like this and I knew that I couldn’t carry on.

I took logical and reasonable steps.  I made my decision, I asked to step down from my role and move onto a project – this would give me breathing space to decide what was next.  For now I was mourning the loss of my career – it was a long time before I could say the words ‘I can’t be a DCI’ without welling up.  I had always dreamt that I would go on to be a Detective Chief Inspector leading murder investigations, and occasionally partaking in a glass of whiskey at the successful conviction of a killer.  It was difficult to admit that I was no longer cut out for the role.  You can tell me that I haven’t failed… but I won’t believe you.  That is how it is with the job.

So what next..?

(to be continued…)

The Reflective Detective #1

Hello there, I’m Sarah-Jane (or SJ..) and I am The Reflective Detective.

Thanks for coming along, I appreciate you taking the time.

I am a police officer on a career break after fourteen years of police service.  I am now studying a MSc. in Human Resource Management at Manchester Metropolitan University.  (bit of a time hop – I am now (06/01/18) in my second year of my PhD. examining emotions and MH in policing).

I want to start off telling you why I decided to write this blog and why I care so much about our wellbeing, in and out of work.

I have had a pretty interesting and varied career until this point – at 19 I ran away from home (well, not strictly true, I went to the Army careers office in Liverpool first..) to join the British Army as a musician – a French Horn player.  I did pretty well here and enjoyed life, I excelled at being a squaddie, picking up awards for Best Shot, Best PT and Best New Recruit, and then went on to be awarded ‘best female musician’.  I saw a bit of the world; Cyprus, Turkey, America.. and learnt to ride a motor bike.  Surprisingly still alive to tell the tale..

From there I went back to full time education and studied for my undergrad – in Shipping Operations!  Well, I wasn’t sure what I was going to do then and I was really interested in sailing and the law so…

… it was this interest in the law that really got me – and the idea of being active and contributing to the world.  Having seen both my parents do it, I joined the police.  At this time I was ‘down south’ in Southampton, so I joined Hampshire Constabulary.  A great decision.  I loved being a police officer, I quickly got my first promotion and awards for leadership, and after working as a Uniform Inspector, with four years service, I decided to become a Detective – and made the transition.  Again, another fantastic move.  I really enjoyed my time working on division and with the Major Crime Department.  At the time Hampshire Constabulary was known for being one of the best forces for homicide investigation, and I was in the thick of it!

Having tried a variety of a roles in Hampshire my head turned to bigger and greater challenge, and my love of the north: I saw an advert for the North West Counter Terrorism Unit..  fantastic!  This was where my next adventure lay.. I always wanted to be James (Sarah-Jane) Bond .  So I applied for Greater Manchester Police, the lead force for North West Counter Terrorism.  I was very quickly accepted and within six months of deciding to apply I started at my new home in Manchester.  I began working in child protection in central Manchester then moved to Longsight, heading up the rape unit as Detective Sergeant.  This was a full on job, covering south of the city, including Moss Side and Gorton.  Long hours and intense investigation ensued – but this is what I loved, the cut and thrust of detective work.  It was then that I spotted the advert – Special Branch were looking for a Detective Sergeant to work within the North West Counter Terrorism Unit.  I bagged the job and spent the next three years having the most amazing time.. until someone pointed out that maybe it was time I got down to the job of progressing my career…

So I left the fun behind me and applied for a role as a staff officer to an Assistant Chief Constable, quite an experience and an eye opener as to how a large metropolitan force like Greater Manchester operates – how we manage the risk and protect our communities.  Whilst here I applied for a place on the national police accelerated promotion scheme – the High Potential Development Scheme.   A national initiative that selects 50 officers from around the country who they identify as particularly talented and destined to make Superintendent and beyond in the next five years.  After months of rigorous selection processes I gained a place on the scheme, and the next stage of my career began.

I had no idea that it was to be the last.

(to be continued…)