First of all, thank you for even starting to read this. I have written it not as a self-help book, but rather as a signpost to where you can find information. It is not for me, nor anyone else to direct you as to how to live your life. It is all your choice.
I know this stuff works. I know it from a personal view, I’ll talk about how it has helped me become more resilient, but also how it helped me in a conflict situation whilst off duty.
Having been a police officer for some 26 years, I know how isolated we can feel, how difficult it can be not only dealing with the public, but also dealing with the politics within our organisation. Let’s face it; we have the politics of leaders, but also a culture that is rife with politics of the office. Some will call it bullying, some will call it culture. Regardless, we all have difficult times.
Add in the uncertainty many police staff have as to whether they still have jobs, or sometimes the discrimination they receive from some officers just because they are staff. Add in the difficulty many officers face in losing money over recent years because of austerity. Add in the number of officers and staff each force will lose over coming months and years. Add in our own lives, the stresses of finances, family demands, ill relatives and death…how do we cope?
We already feel work life balance is a problem, and we don’t have enough of us to cope with workloads that just seem to be forever rising. I would suggest we haven’t seen anything yet, more losses will happen but our workloads I can’t imagine will reduce. So we have to do something different for the good of ourselves, our families and those we serve.
Well this book is a signpost to something that will come to policing. It’s inevitable. It’s a signpost to something called mindfulness. Now don’t stop reading, it gets worse before it gets better I’m afraid. But this mindfulness stuff could equally be called Resilience Training. Let’s not get hung up on titles though, try and cast aside our normal cynicism as police officers and staff, which is something we generally excel at. Try and read the meaning of what I’m trying to say, because frankly I ain’t all that eloquent!
So as for labels…let’s get them out there. Resilience Training is a good phrase, works for us as police, and is acceptable for everyone regardless of what your role is. We could all do with being more resilient, regardless of whether you’re a constable in Response, Neighbourhood or other stream of policing, or whether you’re police staff in Investigations, the Coroner’s Office or ICT. Rank or grade is irrelevant.
But it could equally be called mindfulness, for this is the more generic term and the term that’s out there. Google “Resilience Training” and that doesn’t give the essence of what we’re talking about. Google “mindfulness” and you get stacks of results. The word that could really turn you off, yet is found in most of those websites that talk about mindfulness, is meditation. Yes ladies and gents…meditation. For that is how you develop a more mindful approach.
So let’s come up with a three letter acronym for it, because we like those. I’ll refer to this practice as MFP. Mindfulness For Police. I know a lot of police jargon, but can’t ever remember hearing of a unit called MFP, forgive me if you work in one, but work with me on this!
I will try and articulate how MFP can all help us deal with our lives, but also the benefits it has to policing. So regardless of whether you want any signposts, regardless of how your life is at the moment, I’ll try and explain how it works. Read on even if only so that you know what others are talking about.
I have written this in chapters that I hope makes some sense. I’ve taken the liberty of writing a short biography to start with to put some context around the whole piece. I’ve then tried to outline some of the benefits, before looking at what it actually is, and how you do it. I’ve then examined in more detail how the benefits can be seen personally and for those around you, moving on then to the science, before a section dedicated to anyone in a supervisory role, or aspiring to be there one day. There is a section which has a brief look at the current position of mindfulness and who else is using it, before a short conclusion.
Finally I’ll finish this introduction with an apology, in that I probably haven’t done this subject the justice it deserves. I’m no author, I’m no motivational speaker, and I often speak straight from the heart. I do speak about us as a generic group, there will always be exceptions to the rule, and I mean no offence when speaking about generic attitudes or cultures. However I do feel passionately about this, and for that I make no apology.
2. My Story
So how did I get to writing this ebook? I’ve been a police officer for a long time it seems. I joined the police in August 1989, aged 19 years and 3 months. When I joined, I was already in a long term relationship and had been for three years. We were married when I was 21, had our first daughter when I was 22, our second when I was 25. We separated and later divorced in 2006.
Having decided absolutely no other marriage was going to happen, and most certainly no other children, I married again in 2010, with another daughter arriving in early 2009 and a son in 2011. All of this is normal stuff, families always have good times and more difficult times, but families and work cannot be separated, they are inextricably linked through you. I am the connection between my family and my work, pretending I have a work life balance is futile, it’s all just life.
But let’s go back to November 2009, and the start of a period in my life that maybe worthy of another rambling ebook, but is probably the start of events that led me here. Two evenings before my stag day, two weeks before we were to marry, I was taken to hospital with what was diagnosed as severe acute pancreatitis. Prognosis
was not good, my fiancée was called to come to hospital during her final wedding dress fitting as they didn’t think I was going to make it through.
A couple of operations later, a total of 12 weeks in hospital including several in intensive care, six months off work and over 4 stone in lost weight, I returned to policing. My force had been through a major restructure, I was now the Detective Chief Inspector for CID across the force. It was a massive task, but thanks to the people whom I was fortunate to manage, we succeeded in almost every performance measure given to us.
If the truth be told, I had suffered a massive loss in confidence. I wasn’t sure who I was, before pancreatitis I was immortal, indestructible. I had never considered what death meant, or what a life changing experience would mean. I had suddenly become vulnerable, or perhaps fragile. With that comes a loss of confidence that I’ve found in so many other people since, for a whole variety of reasons. It doesn’t need to be that way, hopefully this book explains why.
The next year professionally was harder. I passed a promotion process, but given a temporary role. I won’t comment further as it is unfair on others, but I was bitterly disappointed. The temporary promotion meant that I retained CID ownership but on a more strategic level. This whole episode hurt, and lived with me for a long time. Did anyone care except me? Of course not, yet I let it fester.
Roll on almost a year, and one August evening I broke down in tears in my back garden. I was hating what I was. I was trying to be what I thought they wanted. I was so full of self-doubt, I was simply not good enough. I had to be more, but I could only keep this up for so long, before it caught up. I learned that the main ingredient of happiness was authenticity. Without being me, I was no one.
Anyhow, this caused me some issues, I suffered with mild depression, and within four months I was told that I was not being supported for the next promotion process. And so the bitterness started again. I was the victim of circumstance, I was the victim of misunderstanding, I was the victim of some cruel joke. I was a victim and deeply unhappy. All my self-doubt had been proven right.
I returned to Major Crime. I decided my career progression had come to an end, so my thoughts went to life after the police, still over six years away. I decided that teaching would be my future, so in October 2013 I started to study a history degree with the Open University. One of the first units was around the Dalai Lama. A fascinating man, so I did a bit of research beyond Buddhism towards meditation and the term mindfulness, realising it was not just a Buddhist thing. It was practiced by so many more, and so it was in November 2013 I started mindfulness practice myself.
I am a million miles away from being good at mindfulness. I get up at 5 o’clock every morning, even weekends and annual leave, so that I can meditate for 20 minutes before my son awakes. But I do it, almost without fail. I put in the effort in my meditation, and I put in effort to stay present throughout the day.
What mindfulness has done for me, or rather what I have learned about myself, is that above all I must be authentic (I’ve said this before, but it’s so important!). That means being true to myself. I have found in myself the need to be compassionately honest with those around me, and I live by this every day. I suffer the stress, anger, jealousy, doubts, worries and all other negative emotions I always have done, but I mainly choose how to respond rather than react. It is by no means easy, nothing worthwhile ever is. But these negative feelings do not last for very long.
I was due to be part of a presentation to the Federation Health and Safety Executive meeting recently, I woke up to my son’s wet bed where he’d leaked from his nappy, my wife really wasn’t very well so I needed to do the school run, neither of my children wanted to dress and had compete strops. I was told off by a police officer for not using my indicator. Even on a good run, I would have made the presentation just in time, but got caught up in 50 minutes of traffic. As it happens I got there just in time for my bit, but I was stress free. I was fully aware of how stressed I was sat in traffic, but I could let it go.
I’m clearly not destined to be a Superintendent! I’ve been overlooked for temporary positions recently, and have flunked this latest round of promotions. My initial anger, frustration and jealousy that arise come with thoughts of “I’m better than they are.” I realised so quickly what I was feeling, the thoughts that followed were more along the lines of “Actually suppose I’m wrong?” Having dipped out so often its pretty much guaranteed! But what does it matter. The decisions have been made, and if I didn’t let the thoughts go, I was going to be the only one affected by it. The negative thoughts went, I’d let them go.
How do I now feel about events that had made me feel like a victim a couple of years ago? Well I can actually laugh at my thoughts now. I can honestly say that I’m grateful for those events. I could have been promoted, and may have carried on struggling through day to day without having had the opportunity to start a degree and become acquainted with meditation. I could have carried on seeking success in the normal way, seeking career progression based on money and status and most other things we consider to be the trappings of success. I could have carried on, maybe being incredibly unhappy, probably working towards my second expensive divorce.
Now I have a life that is full of stresses, just as before. Nothing’s really changed, I’m no richer, in fact with childcare costs and austerity measures reducing my salary I’m actually a good deal worse off. The same stresses are there about my health, not enough hours in the day, too many people who seem willing to suck all the energy from me with moans and groans.
Yet I am happier now than I can ever remember being…ever!
Before we dive in and discuss what it is and how it works, let’s have a look at some of the benefits. There is an enormous amount of research and literature which have proven the benefits scientifically. There is just as much which shows anecdotal evidence to support the benefits. You will be very hard pressed to find any disadvantages though.
For ease then, as it’s quicker, let’s consider the downside. There isn’t one. Oh wait, maybe having to invest between 10 and 20 minutes a day could be considered a downside, but that’s it.
- Less stress
- Lower blood pressure
- Better memory
- Improved relationships
- Greater focus
- All of the above leading to a generally improved performance.
- Greater compassion, for those we work with and the public.
- Better communication skills
- Less mistakes
- Potential to reduce crime, increase detections, awareness of our own bias, generally
- Happier in our role, greater confidence and satisfaction
- Reduces costs and reduces sickness
Meditation was westernised by Prof. John Kabat-Zinn in the U.S. He used it to really good effect in treating patients for pain relief, particularly those whom traditional medicine had given up on.
But it has found strength in terms of helping those of us with any mind health problems we suffer. To put into context the power of this stuff, I’m going to cite a bit of work done by Transport for London. They introduced mindfulness for their staff a few years ago, together with an overall Wellbeing package which I guess is similar to those found in many of our forces today. They reduced sickness for people suffering with stress, anxiety and depression by 71%, and overall sickness by half. It’s difficult to measure this accurately in policing. Most forces I understand allow us to record “other” as a sickness reason. So just based on the sickness we do know about in my force alone, that 71% equates to 11,000 days over the next three years that are not taken as sickness. 11,000 days saved for ranks and pay grades of all levels.
We don’t go sick with depression or stress on day 1, it’s a long road of decline, during which our performance drops, our relationships suffer, and we really don’t enjoy ourselves. So as well as saving these actual days off sick, which result in us having action plans imposed and risk of UPP or dismissal, think of all of the frustration because we know we aren’t doing very well either at work or at home. We want to do a good job, but the cycle in our head stops it happening, and trust me it is a vicious cycle. Think about how much more happy we could be with our life in the police and at home. Think of the effect it has on our partners, family, children, and yes, probably even our pets!
But a massive win all round is the increased awareness of not only ourselves but those around us. This means more compassion, leading to better quality communication. An example of a benefit within the organisation that affect us individually, is that next time you ring another department for a favour, the chances increase of getting someone on the phone with an understanding, can-do attitude rather than “not my remit.” Now how refreshing would that be! We must all have examples of our frustrations within our policing family, either within or between forces.
Move this compassion and communication outside, suddenly our victims feel as though they are the most important people in the world, so even if we can’t solve their crime, they feel important and listened to. We’ve all experienced officials who are absolute jobs-worths, and it gets so under your skin! I was told off recently by a uniform officer (not my home force I hasten to add). He was directing traffic at a Road Traffic Collision (still don’t understand why we can’t call them accidents anymore!). I was stopped at a junction, only one way I was pointing, and he told me off for not indicating as he didn’t know which way I was going to go. Maybe he had a point, maybe he was being a jobsworth, but ultimately it was the way he said it that really did get under my skin. Yes directing traffic is a pain sometimes, particularly with drivers complaining as if it’s the officers fault. I get it! But really, treat me like a human being…please!
And I’ll give another personal example if I may around a physical confrontation where mindfulness played a massive part. I was in my home town just after 9pm on a Sunday evening, Mrs P. wanted a KFC. There were four men in there who were around my age, throwing food around, being rude to staff and customers in the extreme. I was off duty, without my warrant card, but couldn’t let it go. I asked them to leave, but to cut a long story short, they didn’t want to and we got to a bit of a stand off. During this I had such clarity, using the window reflection to watch my back, watching all four despite one being literally right in my face. It did end up in a bit of fisticuffs, but police did arrive and made the necessary arrests. One conviction followed. The point is that when I was in conflict situations earlier in my career, my hands would shake because of the adrenaline pumping. This time, retaining focus, watching it all, listening to my breathing at a couple of points during the ten minute episode, there was no shaking. There was no release of adrenalin that I couldn’t control. I was in charge of my body and emotions, not the other way around. Although I haven’t policed the streets for quite a while, this is how I know the power it would have for my front line colleagues. Incidentally, KFC kept my food warm for me, but no I didn’t get a freebie!
4. So What Is It, And What Do I Have To Do?
Let’s get one thing straight. I am not a mindfulness teacher, nor can I train you in meditation. There is a plethora of stuff out there that can guide you though.
Neither MFP, nor mindfulness, nor meditation, is religious mumbo jumbo. It has connections with religion, but in the same way as candles. They are used in religious respects, but you don’t have to be religious in any sense of the term to use a candle. The same with meditation.
You don’t have to sit with incense burning whilst humming “Om”, but you can if you want. You don’t have to sit on the floor in a full lotus cross-legged position, but you can if you want. You don’t have to have your eyes open staring at a blank wall…but guess what…you can if you want. Anything is ok, as long as it works for you.
MFP is a way of being present in what you do. It means going through your day spending far less time reflecting on the past, that’s gone and this may come as a shock to some, but you can’t change it.
It means going through your day spending less time worried about the future. As Mark Twain apparently referred to, most of the bad things in his life never actually happened. It seems he was talking about that Dr Pepper moment, “What’s the worst that can happen?” In our mind the worst always seems to happen, but in reality it very rarely does. This allows you to focus on the here and now. It allows us to focus on the person we have in front of us, focusing on the meeting we’re at, the person who is speaking with us, focusing on radio or SatNav accordingly, focusing on not getting hit by a violent offender, getting our dog to track properly or focusing on making the next shot (hopefully only on the range). It helps us switch our focus as we need to, and with the compassion comes the awareness of speaking to someone appropriately when telling someone off for not using their indicators.
How I do it is simple. It suits me to get up at 5 every morning. Don’t let this put you off, it’s my choice as I like being up early. I grab myself a cup of tea, then sit with earphones in my smartphone and listen to my app. It guides me through 20 minutes of meditating, and also gives me some guidance for how to stay focused and calm during the day. The app I use is Headspace, but please don’t read this as an endorsement, it is just one I’ve chosen to use.
I concentrate for that 20 minutes on what my body feels like, physical stresses, aches and pains, and to pay attention through all of my senses. I notice my mood and reflect on why I’m doing this, the good stuff it can bring to those I care for, and then simply concentrate on my breathing. It’s really quite interesting in a way, because no two breaths actually seem the same.
That’s it. That’s all there is to it. Yes of course I get bombarded with thoughts when I’m doing it, but realising you’re thinking actually makes the thoughts go away. You won’t stop those thoughts, we’ve had so many years of living in ways that encourage us to think, you won’t suddenly be able to stop this habit. When thoughts do arise, you’ll actually be more aware of them so you may actually believe you are thinking even more, but this isn’t true. Nor is it true to think you must be doing it wrong. Just do it. That’s the right way. It does take some effort, but not too much and not too little. As the saying goes, “A minute to learn, a lifetime to master.”
I would recommend using a smartphone app if you can, or a book with a disc included, something where someone can help guide you through the process. They can talk to you during your practice so you get to know what you’re doing. Someone to tell you that just doing it is important, that’s the success, rather than doubting that you’re doing it right. Someone to tell you that they understand that sometimes it’s the most boring thing in the world, but tomorrow it maybe just what you need!
I use my app pretty much every day, I regard it as my teacher. The nice thing is I can put on my headphones and sit on the park bench during a warm summers day (meal break of course) and meditate. No one knows! I meditated today on the train on the way to London for a meeting, and no one knew. It’s great stuff.
My heartfelt plea to you though is please don’t dismiss this stuff. Being candid, I can’t worry whether you think I’m raving mad and swear never to try this crap. That’s your shout, and I know that we as police officers and staff do that all too often. All I ask is that you consider doing something a little different and have an open mind about this. Let’s not start with a reaction of “The problem is…”. Instead let those who want to try it and discuss it do just that. If you’d have told me even a couple of years ago that I, as a long service officer investigating murders, would be meditating and writing this down, I would have laughed.
So I still feel the negative emotions including anger and jealousy, they are human emotions and wouldn’t life be boring without them. However I have learnt to respond to them objectively, watch them if you like, so that they pass far more quickly and don’t ultimately start causing me stress, either physically or mentally.
So now, when something happens at work or at home, which is outside of my control, I generally respond in a much more positive way. I have learned to take responsibility, even though I don’t actually control much in my life at all. I certainly can’t control when a murder happens, when a staffing issue arises, when a relative is ill or when my car breaks down. So why not respond in a better way instead of living with stress, anger and all that negative stuff.
I can only speak personally, but this stuff works. Ask Mrs P., she will tell you it has also worked for me. I have another relative who now practices. It’s really helped with her insomnia too.
5. The scientific stuff…if you’re interested
A bit of narrative about MFP, and a little bit of the science. Our brain is split into different parts. We probably all know about the left and right part, but it’s also split into top and bottom. The bottom is our habit part, our flight and fight stuff. It makes up stories and sees patterns even if they aren’t really there. It’s quick too, doing stuff before our more conscious part at the top of the brain is even aware. It’s the bit that pulls our hand from something hot. It is the bit that reacted to the danger when humanity was young, such as the sabre-toothed tiger bearing down on us. But because we don’t have many sabre-toothed tigers left, it’s adapted to more modern “dangers”, such as someone saying something horrible to us, or winding us up. It still reacts in the same way, by habit, so our physical feelings and stress can still react in that same way when the bottom of our brain kicks in.
Well the good news is that the more conscious top part of the brain can become more aware. The bit behind the forehead is called the prefrontal cortex (PFC). It’s this that, if I can term it this way, is the thinking, conscious part of our brain. It’s the logical part. Well science has proven that meditation actually increases the density of the PFC, but you don’t have to meditate like a Buddhist monk to do this. In just a few short weeks, that density increase can already be seen. I suppose it’s like a physical muscle, it develops with practice. Although Buddhist monks could be the bodybuilders of the PFC, just achieving a reasonable level for most of us is more than sufficient.
But the PFC is a really important area. As our conscious part, it can realise what the bottom part is up to, with practice. It can realise that our bottom part has kicked into a habitual response, that it has created something that isn’t really there; that it is reacting. Our PFC can distance us from that reaction, and can choose a more appropriate response.
This section is aimed at leaders and managers in the organisation, or those who aspire to these positions. Forgive me, but I have taken the liberty of pointing out not only some business benefit, but some of our responsibilities to ourselves, our teams and the public.
I have articulated some of the potential gains through saving on sickness and performance. But evidence also suggests that we begin to realise the bias we have, which can take affect in so many ways. Really relevant examples in today’s policing are missing teenagers for whom we fail to identify their role as a victim of Child Sex Exploitation, failing to serve repeat vulnerable ASB victims, or perhaps even rape victims.
Research from Scandinavia refers to a natural phenomena called victim worthiness. This means that if we think a victim is worth our effort, we try harder for them. The research looked at rape victims, so we are more likely to try harder for a 30 something housewife pulled into hedges whilst walking the dog, than a twenty something victim who has made an allegation previously and has worked as a prostitute. We see one victim more worthy of our efforts. Natural though it may be, the phenomena is not something we want to encourage. Yet we do. We allow our bias to interfere with our judgement. Try it for yourself. Next time an officer briefs you on a job, listen to their bias, and realise how much you accept it. Much of it is hidden, but if they are speaking about a victim of rape, see how early in the briefing they raise whether they have made a previous allegation or have mental health vulnerabilities. Even if they don’t say it outright, what they say and how they say it is very likely to affect your thoughts. Don’t take my word for it, experience it yourself. We all do it, because you will add your own beliefs and values when you brief about the same job upwards.
The other significant area of efficiency and cost reduction is that with more satisfied staff, self-initiated moves are likely to be less. This builds experience, a desire to improve, but also must reduce training costs. I don’t think this work or evaluation has yet been done, but to me it is a natural consequence of MFP.
Over the coming months and years, we will continue to ask for more from less, not only of our staff but ourselves. We owe it to ourselves, those we manage and lead, and indeed the public, to stay healthy in every way, and to encourage the same of our teams. If you don’t care about this in your teams, then frankly you don’t deserve the honour of being in a supervisory role.
I’ve referred above to our own bias awareness. However self-awareness and compassion, in my humble view, has a particularly high potential within our decision making. Yes we have the National Decision Model, but this gives us that little extra that the NDM doesn’t. It gives us an awareness of why we’re making that decision. Am I biased? Am I recommending that person for promotion because I like them and they’re just like me, or can they really lead as opposed to just managing? Is what I’m doing right! It is a bridge between the NDM and Code of Ethics. It allows us to realise our emotions rather than just the facts of the NDM.
7. Current work
I cannot list all of the work that’s already bubbling around the country, but there are plenty of those little MFP bubbles appearing. Don’t quote me as I may have some stuff wrong, but clearly this list is not exhaustive.
The Senior Police Leadership Review has Mindfulness included, as does the Met Police Leadership Review.
Individual forces are beginning to at least discuss the benefits. Lancashire for example have produced a whole pack around Wellbeing, their DCC Andy Rhodes is leading the work nationally, ably assisted by Ian Hesketh.
Lt. Richard Goerling has introduced this type of resilience training to his force, Hillsboro P.D., Oregon. I am honoured he has taken his time to help me along the way, and has given me great support.
One force, at least, has a Force Medical Officer who will ask anyone presenting whether they have undertaken any mindfulness training.
The military in the States and UK use mindfulness for their troops, given the benefits not only before entering the theatre of war, but afterwards in assisting with PTSD. American troops deployed were given the training, some took it and some didn’t, but many of those who didn’t then asked for the training when they returned.
I have a friend who is working as part of the All Party Parliamentary Group, who is working with the ACPO leads, College of Policing and others to try and establish a national trial across many forces to evaluate its worth. This sits alongside his work with the government looking at mindfulness in Health, Education, Criminal Justice and the Workplace. Mindfulness in education was featured on the One Show recently.
It is used by elite athletes preparing for the 2016 Olympics, I was honoured to be asked to provide an input to a team of sports psychologists recently.
Outside of policing, it’s really being grasped. It’s used by the NHS for staff and patients. It has recognised benefits in helping us mentally, and in other areas such as pain relief.
Have a look at a list you can find on the Internet of famous people who focus on their breath for a few minutes a day. People like Angelina Jolie or Gwyneth Paltrow (two of my personal favourites), Arnold Schwarzenegger or Steven Seagal (bet they wish they had a body like mine), or Hugh Jackman (for the sake of equality, my wife’s favourite). They include sports stars and athletes like Michael Jordan or Kobe??, business leaders like ?? (Nope, I’d not heard of them either) or ordinary people like me, that woman I know in forensics or that man I know in ICT – although you probably won’t find them on Google.
I’m going to borrow something I’ve learnt from Headspace to describe the overall effect of MFP. Above our head is blue sky, it is always there, beautiful and clear. Some days there will be bright white fluffy clouds, sometimes there will be heavy grey storm clouds. Above them though, the sky is always blue. Well the blue sky is our mind, but our thoughts are the clouds. All we need to do is realise the blue sky is always there, and don’t worry about the clouds.
This stuff is coming. All I’m suggesting we try and take care of our physical health, but give no regard to the wellbeing of our brains, our minds. This stuff may just help you personally and professionally.
I started to write this with a view of writing some kind of formal police guidance, you know the sort we used to get in purple or brown books, that is now only available on APP. You can see this book is most certainly not that. Whilst I haven’t endorsed websites, books or apps and risking gratuities being sent, PSD getting hold of me, suspension and ultimate sacking (thanks Dr Pepper), I have listed my professional contact details should you wish to discuss further, leave feedback, criticise my use of language, poor grammar, or just occasionally tell me I’ve tried hard and maybe even done a good job. I can then put it in my PDR, or maybe my CPD log.
DCI Mark Preston