Thousands of prison officers absent from work with stress, anxiety and depression

Experts warn mental health needs to be treated as a boardroom issue on par with physical health

Almost 2,000 prison officers in England and Wales took absences from work last year because of their mental health, the BBC has reported, highlighting the need for organisations to provide wellbeing support for employees in difficult roles.

A freedom of information request revealed that 1,000 prison officers took time off work because of stress last year, while another 800 were reported sick with anxiety and depression – a number the BBC reports as a significant increase on previous years.

The revelation comes a few days after a government audit of the Scottish Prison Service revealed sickness absence in Scottish prisons has risen 60 per cent in the last three years, with stress cited as the primary cause of the increase.

Leatham Green, executive director of the Public Services People Managers Association, said it was unrealistic to expect workers in frontline services such as prison officers and social workers to be able to carry out their jobs consistently for years on end, and that staff in these roles required breaks from such pressure and responsibility to continue to do their jobs effectively. “We have the flexibility [to provide this], but organisations don't do it. You're just left in there… and eventually you will be worn down,” he said.

Green added that while support services were important, they dealt with the symptoms of poor mental health in work environments, rather than the causes. “You might have 24/7 access to counselling, but that's dealing with the effect of pressures, that's not actually preventing it from happening in the first place,” he said. 

Louise Aston, wellbeing director at Business in the Community, said it was important to treat mental health as a boardroom issue on par with physical health. “When you come to work, there's legislation and compliance in place to protect people from being physically harmed, in the form of health and safety law,” she said, “but the same is not true of psychological health.”

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And Emma Mamo, head of workplace wellbeing at mental health charity Mind, highlighted that when an employee does take sick leave, it’s important for managers to keep the lines of communication open. “It can be helpful to explore how roles, responsibilities and hours can be adjusted, which should always be done in consultation with the member of staff,” she said. “When someone is ready to come back to work, it can help to slowly build up to their normal working hours as part of a phased return.”

A former prison officer told the BBC that stress and anxiety induced by the pressure of his job felt like “a foreboding inside your belly, like you haven’t done your homework as a child, but amplified a hundred times”. The anonymous worker also described disordered sleeping, strain on personal relationships and even physical sickness all stemming from the anxiety brought on by his work in the prison service.

Tom Neil, senior adviser at Acas, said all employers had a duty of care to their employees, and must do all they reasonably can to support their health, safety and wellbeing. “This includes making sure the working environment is safe, protecting staff from discrimination and carrying out risk assessments,” he said.

A spokesperson for the Prison Service in England and Wales said: “The safety and wellbeing of our staff is paramount and, because prison officers work in a demanding environment, we give them access to services including 24/7 counselling, trauma support and occupational health.”

They also pointed out that a further 4,400 prison officers had been hired since 2016, and that new investment was improving security and helping better equip officers.

A Scottish Prison Service spokesperson said: “Prison officers work in a difficult and intensive environment that can, at times, be dangerous. We provide a range of measures and interventions to support our staff, and our employee wellbeing policy incorporates a wide range of proactive support mechanisms to improve health and attendance.”