Political News Updates

07.01.2015

Herald Scotland: Conference told prison officers need more help to deal with pressures of the job

It seems reasonable to think that the psychological challenges faced by people working in prisons and secure hospitals are similar to those experienced in other high-risk public sector jobs such as the police or fire services.

In some ways they are worse - many prison officers are routinely subject to intimidation and aggression from prisoners - from verbal threats to physical assault.

But recent research has found that health and safety benchmarks for managing wellbeing at work are frequently not met in prisons, with a survey of staff finding low levels of managerial support, lack of control of their jobs and environment and a lack of satisfaction about job demands and workplace relations. Significantly the scores registered were considerably poorer than those found by surveys in other 'safety-critical' occupations.

It's important to point out that this UK-wide research, carried out at the University of Bedfordshire, included Scottish prison officers, but found generally more positive results north of the border, though the sample was small.

The research will be highlighted at a three-day conference on occupational psychology, which opens in Glasgow today.

Most of those surveyed - 97% - worked in public sector jails or institutions.

Officers frequently reported psychological health problems related to their working conditions, such as depression, anxiety, emotional exhaustion and sleeping difficulties.

The problem was exacerbated, researchers found, because prison officers felt admitting to work-related stress would be seen as weakness, and any support would be inadequate. Most resisted taking sick leave, to avoid increasing the strain on colleagues. Staff questioned lacked basic equipment such as working radios, and the lack of support made them more likely to 'depersonalise' the prisoners in their care.

Professor Gail Kinman will warn at Glasgow's Hilton today that prison staff are at considerable risk of psychological health problems, putting themselves at risk, but that this also has implications for inmates and ultimately the public. "A key source of strain was violence, intimidation and threats from prisoners," she says. "The finding that work-related stress is stigmatised in prisons and little support is available is particularly concerning."

"Overall, the findings of our survey raise serious concerns, not only for the health of employees but also for the safety of prisoners and the functioning of the UK prison service in general."

Although the number of Scottish Prison Service staff involved in the research was relatively low - smaller than it would have been if the survey was proportionate to the UK population - those who did respond tended to be considerably more positive and to have fewer safety concerns than their colleagues south of the border.

The prison service in England and Wales has experienced considerable organisational upheaval and has arguably been more exposed to marketisation and competition from the private sector than the SPS has. Prof Kinman says these may be factors in any difference in experiences of English and Scottish prison staff. But further research would be needed to be confident the difference is there, and the reasons for it.

The conference at the Hilton is held by the British Psychological Society's Division of Occupational Psychology, and for the rest of the week will be exploring a range of workplace issues including topics such as cyberbullying in the workplace, whether mental health workers recognize their own burnout and whether emotionally draining work, such as working with people who are terminally ill is stressful or rewarding. It looks likely to be of interest to many in the public and voluntary sector and many other workplaces.