Plea over long-term police sickness
A major culture shift is needed to address the problems of long-term sickness in the police, an occupational psychiatrist has said, after a study revealed absence in the country's largest force was strongly associated with workplace disputes.
Dr Derek Summerfield said he found little evidence of formal mental disorders in the officers he assessed, and he was often perceived as a barrier between them and the ill-health retirement to which they felt entitled.
Dr Summerfield, honorary senior lecturer at the Institute of Psychiatry, King's College, London, reviewed 300 cases of officers retiring on mental health grounds during his time as consultant occupational psychiatrist to the Metropolitan Police Service from 2001 to 2004.
During this time, 4.8% of the workforce were not on full operational duties - a loss of the equivalent of 180 police officers monthly - because of stress-related absence.
Furthermore, retirement on mental health grounds as a proportion of all ill-health retirement had been rising - up to 46% in 2002-03.
He noted that long-term sickness absence was strongly associated with workplace disputes.
"Once an officer saw ill-health retirement as his preferred option, there was an imperative to maintain the illness presentation until the matter was decided," he said.
Labels such as post-traumatic stress disorder or work stress were common, yet many officers were experiencing a range of stressors, including conflict with other staff, unresolved grievance procedures, marital discord and financial worries.
Dr Summerfield, whose findings have been published on bmj.com, argues that NHS mental health services may also be part of the problem by unduly prolonging sickness absence and failing to promote rehabilitation and return to work.
Yet he points out that, in most situations, the benefits of work for an individual's mental health outweigh any risks.