04 November 2019

Mindfulness in policing

Dr Helen Fitzhugh is a social researcher working with the College of Policing as part of a Knowledge Transfer Partnership with the University of East Anglia (UEA).

Helen carried out a randomised controlled trial (RCT) on practising mindfulness in a police context, one of a number of projects that the College is involved in which focus on supporting the wellbeing of officers and staff. Some forces had already been using mindfulness activities and there had been a growing number of requests for information and support about its use from frontline officers. Surveys by Mind in 2015 and the Police Federation in 2018 have also suggested that many members of the police workforce are likely to experience stress, anxiety and / or other mental health issues at some point. Discussions with frontline staff about workplace wellbeing confirmed that while some pressures on police wellbeing were similar to all jobs, there were also challenges that were unique to the emergency services. Helen's previous research for the University of East Anglia on wellbeing at work meant that she was ideally placed to consider the application of mindfulness for policing and support the RCT by co-designing it and leading the research.

As a result of increased interest in the use of mindfulness techniques, the College has tested the relevance and impact of their use and application in a police context by conducting a randomised controlled trial (RCT).  The research examined whether using mindfulness could make a difference to the wellbeing of police officers and staff.  Results indicated that there is strong evidence that practising mindfulness by using online tools can make a meaningful difference to the wellbeing of police officers and staff.

What do we mean by mindfulness?
Mindfulness has received widespread publicity as a way to improve individual wellbeing. The Mindfulness Initiative describes mindfulness as:

"paying attention to what's happening in the present moment in the mind, body and external environment, with an attitude of curiosity and kindness."

Because this is such a simple idea, people often have misconceptions about mindfulness. One of the challenges of training police officers and staff in mindfulness is overcoming any initial resistance to pre-conceived ideas of what 'people who are mindful' look like, or do. Fortunately, we worked with Detective Inspector Jenni McIntyre-Smith from Bedfordshire Police, who was both a serving officer and a qualified mindfulness trainer. She helped us work on the message that mindfulness training is like any other form of strength training; training your mind to be fit and resilient for the job. 

How did we carry out the research?

There were already promising small-scale studies in the USA on the benefits of using face to face mindfulness courses. However, we wanted to research the application of online mindfulness training because these resources provide far more flexibility for rapid rollout than face to face courses.   

We wanted to use an RCT to establish the evidence and this involved 1,337 police officers and staff across five forces who volunteered to participate. Participants were split randomly into three groups; the first group received access to Headspace (a well-known online mindfulness app), the second group received access to Mindfit Cop (a new police-focused online training course) and the third group were asked to wait six months and were then given access to the free resource after the trial had ended. 

What did we find?
Both of the online mindfulness resources (Headspace and Mindfit Cop) improved average wellbeing, life satisfaction, resilience and work performance scores after six months of access. Headspace was slightly more effective. Technical issues affected Mindfit Cop's take-up and usage in the first month, which may have affected the results. One really interesting finding was that police officers and staff who felt that they did not have much control over how they spent their working time actually experienced more wellbeing benefit than those who felt they had more job control. This is the opposite of what we would have expected, given that we expected people with more job control to find it easier to make time for mindfulness practice. 
Some of the participants either did not use the resources at all, or used them very little. We interviewed non-users and low users to try to discover the reasons for low or no use and commonly, people reported  that it was hard to find the time and quiet space (particularly in open plan offices) and that it could feel embarrassing to practise at work. 

How will this inform policing and our support for wellbeing?

This research has produced strong evidence that online mindfulness training can improve the wellbeing of police employees. As a result, the online training course Mindfit Cop has been made available free to all employees with a 'pnn' police e-mail address via Oscar Kilo, the home of the National Police Wellbeing Service. Police forces can now make an evidence-informed decision about whether they want to buy Headspace licences. The results provide evidence for future investment decisions at force and national level. This trial has demonstrated the relevance of building the evidence base for what works to improve police wellbeing and has shown that simple interventions can make tangible differences to people's lives.   

If you have any questions about the Mindfulness in policing trial, please email research@college.pnn.police.uk 


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