“It’s a Crutch” – New study explores at-risk drinking and abstinence among police
A new study led by Dr Patsy Irizar (University of Manchester) has produced an in-depth understanding of police employees’ experiences of at-risk drinking and abstinence from alcohol.
Causes and Consequences
Policing in the United Kingdom (UK) can be a highly stressful occupation. Police employees experience operational stressors, such as witnessing a traumatic event, and organisational stressors, such as a work-life imbalances. Budget cuts over the past decade have reduced officer numbers, leading to increasing demands. The negative impact of these stressors on the mental health of police employees is well-evidenced [1,2]. Consequently, police employees may use alcohol as a coping mechanism. In the wider literature, poor mental health has been found to be associated with harmful drinking, as alcohol is used to alleviate symptoms [3,4]. Though conversely, there is evidence to suggest that poor mental health is associated with abstinence . It is thought that people who used to drink alcohol may become abstinent to prevent further mental health decline .
Survey data from 40,000 UK police officers and staff showed that one third (33%) met criteria for hazardous drinking and 3% for harmful drinking . Police employees with a mental health problem were much more likely drink harmfully, compared to those without a mental health problem. Other police employees with a mental health problem were more likely to report abstinence than those without a mental health problem. This research aimed to gain an in-depth understanding of UK police employees’ experiences of at-risk drinking (hazardous or harmful) or abstinence, such as their motivations for drinking or abstaining, and the organisational culture of drinking with the UK Police Service.
Interviews with 16 serving police officers and staff (12 at-risk drinkers, 4 abstainers) identified the current organisational culture of drinking and how this has changed over time. The interviews also explored police employees’ reasons for drinking or abstaining, and investigated the availability of support for alcohol problems.
Semi-structured interviews were completed on the telephone, between October 2020 and March 2021. A total of 16 UK serving police officers and staff, from a range of roles, were interviewed. Of those, 12 met criteria for at-risk drinking (8 men, 4 women) and 4 met criteria for abstinence (all men). The interviews were transcribed, anonymised, and analysed using thematic analysis, which involves coding the data and identifying common themes. The analysis identified 5 main themes:
- The organisational culture of drinking and changes over time
- Alcohol as a coping mechanism
- Alcohol and socialising
- Motivations for abstinence/cutting down
- Contrasting perceptions of available support for alcohol problems
Participants discussed the culture of drinking within the UK Police Service and how this has changed over the years (theme 1). Although the drinking culture has shifted, partly due to the removal of bars in police stations, it was apparent that heavy drinking was still considered normal among colleagues and was not thought to be problematic unless extreme. Police employees who had served for many years believed the drinking culture was still strong among younger employees, but this was not reflected in the interviews with newer recruits, who described a culture that was more accepting of abstinence.
The mental health consequences of the job, through both trauma exposure and job strain (worsened by the change to mostly single-crewing, reducing peer support whilst on duty), were strikingly apparent. Participants described using alcohol as a crutch, particularly after traumatic incidents, but also to cope with more general stressors, as alcohol was used to signify the end of the working day (theme 2).
Participants also reporting drinking to socialise with colleagues, especially for police employees who had served for several years (theme 3). This was viewed as positive by at-risk drinkers but caused some abstainers to feel excluded. However, linking back to theme 1, it was clear that the culture has changed and not all social activities revolve around drinking, particularly for the newer recruits.
The 4th theme, ‘motivations for abstinence/cutting down’ was not unique to abstainers, as at-risk drinkers also reported that they had tried to cut down their drinking. Among the abstainers, there were 2 distinct reasons for abstaining. The first reason related to working in the night-time economy and witnessing excessive drinking, and the second reason was because alcohol was creating a problem (e.g., worsening an existing mental health problem). For the at-risk drinkers, motivations to cut down were due to the impact of alcohol on physical or mental health.
Across the interviews, there were contrasting perceptions of available support for alcohol problems (theme 5). Some participants believed that alcohol problems would be dealt with through misconduct or unsatisfactory performance procedures, which may be a result of stigma towards alcohol problems. Others were unaware of any support specifically for alcohol problems, unlike mental health support, which is now widespread. However, some participants were aware of available support and knew how to access it, for example, through internal counselling networks or occupational health services.
Taken together, these findings suggest a cultural shift within the UK Police Service, as heavy drinking is no longer encouraged. However, heavy drinking is considered normal and unproblematic. Moreover, police employees are an occupational group at risk of using alcohol as a coping mechanism, and the lack of awareness regarding support for alcohol problems is concerning. This evidence supports the following recommendations:
- Workplace education is needed to raise awareness of ‘low-risk’ levels of drinking and the harms of regularly drinking above guidelines.
- Mental health and alcohol services should be integrated, and occupational health services should routinely screen for co-occurring problems.
- Support for alcohol problems must be available within all police services, and police employees should be made aware of how to access them.
This study was funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) and Alcohol Change UK – ‘”It’s a crutch”: a qualitative exploration of UK police employees’ experiences of at-risk alcohol consumption or abstinence’, by Patsy Irizar, Leanne Jackson, Sean Bell, Richard Piper, Suzi Gage, Vicky Fallon, and Laura Goodwin, is published open access in Policing: A Journal of Policy And Practice.
About the Author
Dr Patsy Irizar is research associate in the School of Social Sciences, University of Manchester. Her PhD research investigated alcohol consumption in the UK Police Service, and the relationship with poor mental health and job strain.
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