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Mindful policing: UK staff to receive meditation lessons

Trial across five forces finds practice improves wellbeing, resilience and work performance

Mindful policing: UK staff to receive meditation lessons
Bedfordshire police learning to meditate. Photograph: Graeme Robertson/The Guardian

Meditation lessons aimed at reducing stress will be made available to all 200,000 UK police staff after a trial across five forces found the practice improved average wellbeing, life satisfaction, resilience and work performance.

More than 600 officers and staff in Avon and Somerset, Bedfordshire, Cambridgeshire, Hertfordshire and South Wales spent six months practicing mindfulness techniques – originally derived from Buddhism – as part of a randomised controlled trial overseen by the College of Policing.

The staff were divided into two groups, one using Headspace, a commercial meditation app set up by a former Buddhist monk, and the other Mindfit Cop, a new police-focused course. A third group was asked not to use any mindfulness techniques. The researchers found that the first two groups recorded “meaningful improvements” in wellbeing as well as life satisfaction and resilience as compared to the control group. However there was no evidence that online training in mindfulness reduced sick leave as had been hoped.

“This research has produced strong evidence that online mindfulness training can improve the wellbeing of police employees,” a report into the trial concluded. “As a result, the online training course Mindfit Cop has been made available free to all employees ... the wellbeing benefits could be reasonably expected to have knock-on effects for productivity and performance.”

Q&A

How many police officers are there in the UK?

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In March 2019 there were 126,000 police officers in England and Wales. This includes 4,000 officers from the British Transport Police. Policing is devolved in Scotland, and the country has had the equivalent of between 16,500 and 17,000 full- time officers for the best part of a decade. Northern Ireland has around 6,500 officers.

Police officer numbers in England and Wales have declined by 20,000 since 2010, when the Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition came to power. The number of police officers in England and Wales is at its lowest recorded level since the Margaret Thatcher administration in the early 1980s. Boris Johnson has pledged to recruit 20,000 new police officers.

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The conclusions follows similar trials among police and armed forces in the US suggesting the practice has positive effects. At least 185 MPs have taken mindfulness courses provided at the Houses of Parliament and mindfulness-based cognitive therapy courses are prescribed on the NHS in some areas to prevent recurrent depression. The course reduces the likelihood of relapse by almost a third, according to an analysis of nine trials.

Mindfulness: a beginner's guide

But there were difficulties with the police trial too. Some of the police staff said fitting in practice within an already hectic schedule increased their feelings of stress, while others said they felt embarrassed or they felt guilty about taking the time out. The cohort of officers trialling the techniques was also dominated by women, partly because there were more back office staff than officers involved.

The report recommends that police forces should consider making sure there is a small “quiet room” in each station that could be used for short breaks away from open-plan spaces. It also said supervisors should be briefed on the benefits of mindfulness and should make very clear to staff that they have permission to undertake short periods of mindfulness practice during work time.

Modern mindfulness practices emerged in the US in the 1970s when Boston professor Jon Kabat-Zinn took the Buddhism out of meditation to create a new system to tackle pain among chronically ill patients, before working with others to develop mindfulness-based cognitive therapy courses to tackle mental health problems. He has defined mindfulness as “the awareness that arises from paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment and non-judgmentally”. By meditating and focusing on the breath, the idea is to cultivate attention on the body and mind as it is, moment to moment, and so help with pain, both physical and emotional.

“Nearly 8 million UK adults have now likely tried mindfulness practice, including many thousands of civil servants in Whitehall,” said Jamie Bristow, director of the Mindfulness Initiative and secretary to the all party parliamentary group on mindfulness. “However without evidence specific to their departments they have so far been unable to fund widespread training for their colleagues at the coalface of public services. This new research into mindfulness in policing builds on trials conducted recently in health, education, justice and defence, so we should soon see our frontline workers being offered better access to this important innovation.”

Topic: #meditation
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