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Stress in the Security Sector

October 10, 2017

Self care in a high stress security sector

Credit: Tony O'Brien, The Security Operative 

#WorldMentalHealthDay

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For this weeks article I want to discuss an area that we can all suffer from but don’t like to admit it. It’s something that has just been accepted as a fact of life in the industry but which has led to more incidents, accidents, job losses and resignations than any other factor I’ve come across. It’s ever present and driven by the environment we work in. We are surrounded by risk factors contributing to its development, actively resisting measures to manage it and we brush off its effects as a bad day, bad week or bad job. In reality we suffer on without realising the impact this hidden issue has on our skills, our mood, our health and our relationships inside and outside of work.

Today we are going to talk about STRESS. What it is, what causes it, the effects of it and how we can manage it. Most importantly we are going to put it out in the open and say it’s okay to suffer from stress. It’s  not weak, it’s not that scary and it’s not okay to let it take what you have worked hard for.

What is stress?

The HSE in the U.K. defines stress quite nicely as:

“The adverse reaction people have to excessive pressures or other types of demand placed on them at work.”

It also goes on to state that Stress is not an illness – it is a state. However, if stress becomes too excessive and prolonged, mental and physical illness may occur in the medium to long term.

The medical meaning  of stress is not completely agreed upon but a more common definition is:

” In a medical or biological context stress is a physical, mental, or emotional factor that causes bodily or mental tension. Stresses can be external (from the environment, psychological, or social situations) or internal (illness, or from a medical procedure). Stress can initiate the “fight or flight” response, a complex reaction of neurologic and endocrinologic systems.”

Sounds complicated but really simple. Stress is the body’s response to adverse conditions from its environment and its interactions. It effects us physically and mentally and images is in a variety of ways.

Causes of Stress

Some of the factors that may place a role or location at a higher risk of stress include:

  • Night working or shift working
  • Working in adverse environmental conditions such as poor weather, noise or air condition
  • High work rate imposed demand
  • Insufficient rest periods between work cycles
  • Repetitive work related activities
  • Conflict or violence in the workplace (number 1 risk factor)
  • Lack of control over work duties
  • Lack of employee engagement or consultation

Now if we think about the majority of roles within the security sector we could consider that they have at least one, possibly numerous and potentially all of those risk factors involved. So according to science we are at very high risk of suffering from stress. No more than other sectors in a similar situations such as nursing, social care, policing etc but with some major differences . In those sectors much work has been done to recognise, highlight and manage the risk factors and effects of stress in recent years. In the security industry we have done our best to bury our heads in the sand and push on through at a personal level.

At an organisational level many companies are either ignorant to the risk or afraid to recognise it. Recognising it means that you have to do something about it and that costs money and time. That’s not to say that all organisations do this. There are a small number of security companies with great employee well-being programmes. Turning a blind eye though is no longer acceptable. Stress as an occupational risk is most likely in every security company’s safety statement or risk assessment and is something that should be addressed throughout the organisation. If it’s not in the safety statement or risk assessment then you have bigger problems.

Impact of Stress

Stress impacts both individuals and organisations in different ways. It can manifest itself positively and lead to great improvements in service and morale or it can be negative and really damage both the individuals and the organisation.

In individual terms poor management of stress leads to poor decision making, fatigue, poor organisation and planning, resentment, increase in conflict incidents and even physical illness. Isn’t it amazing how all of these nasty, horrible effects can stem from a simple thing such as stress.  If there were any other risk in a workplace with this level of widespread impact across all employees it would surely have been controlled with immediate effect.

As an organisation the negative individual effects of stress can quickly turn into an overall  issue for the entire company. Poorly managed stress levels or even stress caused by the organisation (see below) can quickly turn into resentment, drop in productivity and absenteeism. All of these have direct human costs in terms of workload and morale of employees and an obvious financial cost to them.  Many organisations who look to begin managing the effects of stress wait until the obvious financial effects begin to impact on the profitability of the company. Usually by that time it is very difficult to begin addressing an issue which has gone out of control.

What can we do?

What can we do about stress is a broad question. The answer is ‘everything’ and ‘nothing’. I say ‘nothing’ becomes stress will always exist in us as humans. It’s a by product of work and effort and will always be there. I’m some cases it’s positive and challenging and some of your most rewarding work experiences will be those that happened under the stress of a pressurised situation.

I also say ‘everything’ because there is so many simple quick wins that employers and employees can do to minimise stress among employees. It doesn’t have to cost  a lot of money on either side.

On an organisational level simple things that can be done at little or no cost:

  • Firstly recognise that it exists and it is an issue in your workplace. Take a look at your risk assessment for occupational stress. If one doesn’t exist then I suggest designing one. Its a real risk and needs to be addressed both morally and legally.
  • Consider stress when rostering and deploying. Consider the numbers of days in a row, the length a person goes through without breaks between shifts. Rostering is not about hours in places. These are humans who have to put in these hours not robots and it’s worth a little consideration.
  • Train your staff: Time invested in training to equip them to deal with the pressures of the job is time saved in dealing with issues later. Train your staff to deal with stress related issues such as conflict and critical incidents.
  • Brief and debrief: Generally staff in the security industry don’t mind hard work and are even prepared to deal with a certain level of risk. As long as they are informed what is expected of them, to what standard and for how long. At then end of the day or night a thanks you and a quick debrief to unload any stress before leaving can have a great effect.
  • Communicate with staff: If you have staff lone working or in remote workplaces or maybe on constant nights then communicate with them. These type of jobs have a limited shelf life for most employees. Fatigue, complacency and impact on home life can result in a person leaving a job due to stress. Keep in touch and ask them if they are ok to continue, are they feeling stressed, are they burning out.
  • Lastly and I think most importantly SUPPORT YOUR STAFF. Stand up for them with customers AND with clients. Make them feel like they are supported and they will go a lot further for you and the organisation.

Personal

Self care is a vital aspect for every professional security operative.You cannot effectively look after others of you are not looking after yourself. At least not for a prolonged period.   It is essential that stress doesn’t turn into a blame game either. The organisation should do this ………… for me. Maybe they should but the overall responsibility for your physical and mental well being lies with you and dont ever forget it. Long after you are ill or exhausted there will be a security industry and a replacement for you. Unfortunate but true. From a personal view of managing stress some good tips I have picked up include:

  • Having a good pre-work routine of eating right and water always helped. Going into a hard shift hungry and dehydrated is going to stress anybody.
  • By now I’m sure you know my feeling on mindfulness. It works.
  • Don’t take it personally. Your employer, your colleague and your customer aren’t going out of their way to make your life hard. It may feel like that sometimes. They have different priorities to you and that will be the same regardless of what sector you work in.  Remember that the security industry will still be dealing with the exact same issues long after you have retired.
  • Talk: If your suffering at work talk about it with somebody. Not happy with shifts then say it. Not happy with colleague then say it. Of course this means you have to deal with the issue but the it’s better than bottling it up.
  • Try to separate work from home. Difficult as it might be to develop a mental ‘off’ switch is important when going from one part of your life to the other. I know guys that as soon as they leave work they put their work jacket and shoes on the boot of the car and that’s work done from that point. Others chafe clothes as soon as they get home and that’s the switch off point. Whatever yours is you need to recognise it and use it. When work issues start coming home with you it makes a for more stress so learning to switch it off is essential.
  • Exercise: Adrenaline and stress is designed to be used up physically and exercise is the most efficient and natural way to do it. A walk, a run, a swim or a gym. Anything to burn off stress in a positive way.
  • Burn out: Be aware of it. Getting 10-12 hours overtime each week is good for the bank balance but in the long term bad for the stress levels. Balance extra work with the extra stress it brings to other parts of your life is essential.
  • Listen to others around you. Often people close to you notice signs of stress in us before we ever do.

Few points to finish on that I hope you can remember:

  1. You are not superhuman. You fell stress the same as the other 7 billion of us. Don’t think you have to take it all on your own shoulders.
  2. Stress is meant to hard. If you aren’t handling it well that because of the level of stress not you. Your stress levels are not reflection of you.
  3. Regardless of how much you need a job or it needs you it never matches how much you need your health.
  4. If you are feeling overwhelmed talk to somebody. A friend, a colleague a family member or reach out to a doctor. Don’t bottle it up.

This article is meant to shine a light on the subject but it wont solve it. Its up to us in the industry to address the issue. Address it personally and address it to your employers.

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