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Security professionals’ struggle with stress

The theme of April – Stress Awareness Month has been determined as “Self-care” in 2023, which is something majority of security professionals forget or are unable to do.

Being a security professional brings with it certain conceptions about how one is supposed to be and act due to the nature of the job. A security professional should, for example, constantly observe their surroundings, look for threats to eliminate, be on the look-out, be strong-willed, be able to handle crisis situations and traumatic events, so on.

This IS the job, and one of the most demanding and stressful job one can think of.

However, this is not something everybody can handle. And even, no human being is well-equipped for being constantly vigilant and resilient to this degree.

As private security sector attracts a lot of human resources from police and military, studies dealing with mental health have been mostly concerned with police and military for a long time. So, we used to hear mostly from police officers or soldiers about what they experience day-to-day in their lives in their public security roles, although now the gap is closing and we are also hearing from private security professionals.

As Washoe County Sheriff’s Sgt. Andi O’Brien says: “The average person who experiences a critical incident or traumatic event in their life, about two or three in their whole lifetime. Somebody in law enforcement could experience up to in surplus of 180 critical incidents in their career.”

“You can go from one tragedy to the next. It could be a car accident to a suicide. You decompress from that and the next thing you know, you’re headed back to work,” says veteran officer turned counsellor Ryan Simpson.

The sheer amount of trauma security professionals endure is staggering, while even one trauma can leave lasting scars in anybody’s life.

Why are there security professionals? To ensure safety of others. 

So why do people do it? That’s a more complicated question.

Private security professionals

It comes down to the desire to help others, an altruistic purpose. The moral reward that comes with doing the job, however, costs security professionals their mental health most of the time. The selfless nature of helping others feel safe creates a warped sense of self, whereby admitting to depression or seeking help would mean that they are not strong enough or capable enough to handle the demands of their job.

This is as true for security professionals as it is for police officers and veterans.

An answer given on a career website more or less sums it up: “I want to be a security officer because I want to make sure that others are able to feel safe and happy while doing their shopping. It is extremely rewarding to help other people feel safe.”

Security professionals have been marginalised from high-risk occupations for a long time, with underestimated importance compared to police officers or veterans as to their function and role in society.

But it is changing as the role of the private security industry evolves and grows. The private security industry has transformed in the last 50 years from a small niche sector to a huge global industry. There are more than 350,000 licensed security guards in the UK alone.

“In recent years there has been massively increased demand for the services of the private security industry, which has now assumed a far greater role in policing areas that were once the sphere of the police–for example, shopping malls, leisure parks and transportation terminals,” Professor Alison Wakefield says in her book Selling Security: The Private Policing of Public Space.

Now, private security professionals’ mental health problems are beginning to come to light just as much as the mental health problems of other high-risk professionals, such as veterans and police officers, which have been recognised for a longer time with whole lot more studies on stress, trauma and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Why is it important as well as hard to deal with stress in security?

Stress in high-risk professions such as security may have more serious consequences, not just for the individual, but also for security services the individual provides.

The signs of stress include “being indecisive”, “feeling nervous” and “being unable to concentrate,” according to Health and Safety Executive, all of which can be disastrous in a job that requires high-level attention, decisiveness and preparedness to deal with any situation.

And “how to deal with stress” guidelines don’t always apply to security professionals. They include, for example, taking a break from new stories “because hearing about the traumatic event constantly can be upsetting,” according to CDC. For security professionals, it’s not just a matter of hearing, but experiencing, seeing, anticipating such events. Taking a break from this is exactly what security professional cannot do.

“Making time to unwind” is another recommendation of CDC, however this is again not that easy for security professionals. Although employees must be given at least 11 consecutive hours of daily rest and at least 24 hours of uninterrupted weekly rest every 7 days, according to EU Directives, the rest periods of staff can be postponed if the work requires continuity of presence, service or production, such as working in fire and civil protection services, i.e. security. As such, security professionals’ rest periods are usually postponed in practice, leaving them very little to no time for rest.

Therefore, security professionals struggle with mental health problems due to constantly high stress levels as well as frequent verbal and physical abuse. According to new research conducted by University of Portsmouth, thousands of security workers in the UK are suffering post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). The results of the largest study to date of mental health amongst British private security operatives showed that almost 40 per cent of them were showing symptoms of PTSD.

The research, led by Dr Risto Talas and Professor Mark Button, Professor of Criminology in the School of Criminology and Criminal Justice at the University of Portsmouth, shown: 

“64.6 per cent of security guards suffered verbal abuse at least once a month. (50 per cent of these were as regular as once a week). 

“43 per cent of respondents reported threats of violence at least once a month (10 per cent were getting threatened on a daily basis).

“More than 30 per cent of those surveyed reported some kind of physical assault in the workplace once a year. (Almost 10 per cent reported a minor physical assault at least once a month).” 

“The research has revealed a worrying lack of support provided by the security companies,” Professor Button said. “This must change and more research is required on what the security industry as a whole must do to address this issue before it becomes a larger societal issue, with added pressure on the limited mental health and wellbeing services provided by the NHS.” 

How to deal with stress in such a stressful occupation?

First step is to identify the signs of stress.

“Many security guards do their day-to-day job without thinking about the pressure they go through,” a blog post from Security Guard App states. “In fact, few don’t even realize that there is an issue until it becomes severe. That is why it is important to learn how to spot the build-up of pressure.”

Security Guard App suggests that it is essential for security guards to do a self-check, just as they would scan the crowd or property for signs of disorders.

Second is to take a break because working non-stop can cause security professionals to stress out as they are always responsible for the safety of others. This is that constantly stressing nature of the job.

Third step is to communicate, i.e., to ask help. Security professionals may feel that seeking help is unnecessary or that it would be a sign of weakness. They may also worry that seeking help could make them dependent on others or suggest they cannot cope with the challenges of their profession.

But it is of outmost importance for security professionals to talk about what they are going through. As mentioned above, their warped sense of self, i.e., being too strong to ask for help, too strong for self-care, puts too much pressure on them. They may feel more at ease sharing their feelings with other professionals who went through the same challenges, or organisations that provide mental health services tailored for them.

There are a number of organisations for security professionals to get confidential help.

Security industry professionals, medics and police staff can reach out to SIU – Security Rehabilitation Centre.

A spokesperson from SIU, UK’s Multi Trade Body for Security stated: “Majority of Security industry employers have been left behind for the mental health support for their workforce.

“We have been working very hard to create and make available the United Kingdom’s first mental health support and rehabilitation centre for security professionals, not only for our members but also for the wider community of security professionals.

“We believe that having easy and instant access to mental health services will make great difference and improve individuals as well as the industry and employers as a whole.”

Serving and retired police officers can get help from Police Care UK and Flint House – Police Rehabilitation Centre.

Armed forces veterans can use a wealth of resources and mental health services at Combat Stress. 

There is also Dave Thomas’s podcast, which can be found here.

Stress Management Society says “Action Changes Things”, with the first letters making up the word ACT. The very word “power” literally means the ability to act or do.

There is no power in NOT asking for help, contrary to what most security professionals believe. Power comes with asking for help when you need it in order to change your circumstances.

So, do yourself a favour in this month of Stress Awareness, and practice self-care by reaching out to other people, your managers, or the organisations listed above to ask for help in your struggle with stress.

For security industry professionals and medics

SIU – Security Rehabilitation Centre https://www.the-siu.org.uk

For serving and retired police officers

Police Care UK https://www.policecare.org.uk

Flint House – Police Rehabilitation Centre https://www.flinthouse.co.uk

For armed forces veterans

Combat Stress https://combatstress.org.uk/

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