Category Archives: Blog

Shaping better workplace cultures

by Simon Nelson
President | Disabled Police Association

Welcome to my latest one-page blog which I always endeavour to publish every two months, in the hope they will stimulate thoughts and discussion without taking up too much of your busy time. Please feel free to contribute, challenge and share any comments and ideas about the points raised.

There have recently been many discussions about negative police team cultures and it’s not surprising really bearing in mind the number of high profile cases involving the sharing of disgusting images and language via chat apps and other means, as well as the tragic murder of Sarah Everard by a police officer. I know of so many police officers who saw this as the ultimate betrayal of everything we stand for and why we serve. Over the past 28 years I have been proud to work alongside thousands of officers who have shown considerable courage and integrity, frequently in circumstances others would struggle to imagine – I once commented in a local council meeting, “They are employed to do, see, hear, feel and smell the things you would rather not”. However, accepting the exceptional policing challenges faced, we can no longer dismiss some of the examples of unacceptable behaviour we have heard as simply workplace ‘banter’ from ‘a few bad apples’. It is a time for us to hold up the mirror to ourselves, reflect honestly and have some uncomfortable conversations in order to build trust and legitimacy going forwards.

I have done that myself and taken the time to speak with female colleagues about their lived experience of ‘everyday sexism’ and I’ve learned so much about what society wrongly accepts as normal. I also reflected on why I have personally witnessed so few examples of discriminatory behaviour within the teams I have been part of or led. Although I would never pretend to be the perfect leader and always determined to develop further, I now understood why: active leadership and recognising workplace culture is not an accidental phenomenon, leaders shape it. Serious forms of misconduct did not arise because signal behaviours were addressed, an example from many years ago being a photo of topless woman being removed from the inside of an officer’s open locker door and a private discussion with him about that; or hearing jokes at another’s expense and having a conversation with them to check how they felt about it. My teams knew how important it was to me that everyone felt part of the team and able to be their true selves – a clear line was drawn.

“I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel”

Maya Angelou

That said, we gain little from reassuring ourselves that, ‘It may have happened there but it’s different here…’ – we need to acknowledge that pockets of toxicity exist everywhere. Teams must be encouraged to discuss what it is like to be different, informed by members of diverse staff networks and improve their understanding of how harmful derogatory behaviours and language can be. Much has been highlighted recently in relation to racism and misogyny but there has been little activity in response to the 2019 National Police Survey that revealed that over the previous 12 months, 41% of respondents had experienced ‘incivility’ based upon their disability. Therefore, the Disabled Police Association whilst supporting the views of other groups, believes the issue that needs to be addressed is institutional discrimination. It is a great shame that it often takes the tragic death of someone from a protected group before political discomfort prompts the necessary will and resources to make substantial improvements. We need more anti-disablists and we need them now.

Team members have two fundamental needs: to be authentic and to belong. We need to recognise the pattern of behaviours within teams that degrade our cultures – the comment made about another person’s difference – it being shrugged off because the recipient still wants to belong – others now seeing that as acceptable and the originator seeing the laughter as validation and encouragement. As leaders we are responsible for the check-and-balance and what we ignore is what we accept. I know of some disabled colleagues across the UK whose confidence has been quietly crushed over time by such comments.

The police, as with many other organisations is as demanding as it has ever been and we need the decompression provided by good humour within close teams, but it must be supportive. One of the many things that make me most proud to be a police officer is the willingness of colleagues to be there for each other, so let’s have honest conversations about how we can do that better and have more reasons to be proud of who we are. ∎

Disability History Month 2021: What lies on the inside counts

by Simon Nelson
President | Disabled Police Association

Welcome to my latest one-page blog which is once again written in the hope that it will generate discussion and awareness of what it is like to live with a range of conditions that fall under the banner of ‘disabilities’, whether they be physical or neurological differences. As always, I appreciate your support and thoughts – please continue these important discussions with others.

As we are coming into Disability History Month, which curiously spans across two months and for four weeks, I was keen to reflect on the national theme for this year, ‘Hidden Disabilities’. I have mentioned previously how ‘disability’ is considered by many to be a disempowering term, hence it is not surprising that the vast majority of those with relevant conditions choose not to refer to themselves as ‘disabled’. Whichever the term used, I am proud to be part of such a tenacious community.

The usual language now includes ‘hidden’ perhaps suggesting the person who lives with them is not being entirely upfront, therefore needing to ‘declare’ or ‘disclose’ what they live with. “Hang on!” you might say, “that’s being a bit wokey isn’t it?!” No, it is important to understand that so many with disabled conditions do well to manage flare-ups, set-backs and regular pain etc., yet their confidence and willingness to share is influenced by our collective ability to create a psychologically safe place for them to trust that they can live and work as their true selves. Their conditions, like mine, may be less obvious but with enough supportive curiosity we may discover the impact on them – we work in very challenging businesses, so mutual support and respect needs to be everyone’s business – if nothing else, be kind.

With a less visible disability an individual can usually chose whether to share that personal identity with others or not. These are circumstances we share with the LGBT+ community and we know of some disabled officers whose disabilities were ‘outed’ when the fitness test was introduced – thankfully support has improved in some police forces but we still have some way to go. The willingness of others to be open about their true selves is often influenced by ‘nudges’ in our workplaces, for example a team who mock a colleague’s condition (even if it is referred to as ‘banter’) and a supervisor who condones it, is a nudge away from them being willing to share and possibly towards leaving our service (a retention risk for all protected groups); whereas routinely witnessing support, respect and inclusion for others who are different whilst also seeing derogatory conduct addressed, is an encouraging nudge towards sharing.

We sometimes forget that whatever we invest in our physical and mental fitness, good health is still a privilege that could shift, and our perspectives altered as a result. With a new normal retirement age for police officers being 60 years old, the likelihood of acquiring a life-changing injury or illness year-on-year increases exponentially – this is worth remembering if we are tempted to feel we are in any way superior to others or resentful, asking ‘Why should they get more?’, ‘Why should they do less?’ as workplace adjustments. Answer: because the equity that provides allows them to do so much more despite their differences. Those I respect the most tend to leaders who are genuinely interested in supporting others and they might be surprised to know how often it is noticed by their team members… it also leads to more discretionary effort!

We need to remember that we are all different, however some minority groups are more vulnerable to discrimination, exclusion and even persecution. It is often forgotten that around 250,000 disabled people were murdered by the Nazis because they were deemed to be ‘unworthy of life’. Some concerning conscious and unconscious attitudes remain and whilst accepting the differences in agenda, there has been a distinct lack of national concern and media coverage of the disproportionate impact on disabled people during this pandemic – their lives are worthy.

Let’s not allow this Disability History Month to be the poor relation of other history months as it has been across the UK in previous years – please take the time to talk to others about life with different conditions, supporting and celebrating the many diverse abilities they have, as had many famous successful figures in history with disabilities, rather than the usual focus on what they are less able to do. My plea and challenge to the senior leaders of our national public services and private companies is to please shine a light on the 11 million disabled people in the UK who work for them, spend with them and count on them – lets not leave them in the shadows again during these special weeks or indeed the months to come. ∎

Daring to share

by Simon Nelson
President | Disabled Police Association

Welcome to the third of my bimonthly one page blogs of this year which I publish in the hope they will stimulate thoughts and discussion without taking up too much of your busy time. Please feel free to contribute, challenge and share any comments and ideas about the points raised.

For those of you who were not aware, I had a sudden and unexpected diagnosis of stomach cancer following a routine stomach ulcer biopsy which, as a dad of three children under seven and in his thirties, felt catastrophic at that time. Although the survival rates for that form of cancer were not good, it had not spread, and I was otherwise fit and strong enough to endure successfully the six cycles of chemotherapy I started this month in 2004 and eventually, the complete removal of my stomach.

The publication of the Five Trust Tests by PurpleSpace and the start of the Safe to Say campaign has caused me to reflect on the start of my disability journey 17 years ago, and the dichotomy I experienced as a police officer living with his ‘new normal’, wishing to fit in yet needing to adapt to a different life alongside the other 86% of those with disabilities who acquire their condition during their lifetime.

After a year of treatment and recovery I was able to return to work on light duties to the service I loved. I was lucky in that I did not require further medical treatment other than a quarterly injection for the rest of my life, but of course I still had to learn to adapt to the change in my body. To be honest it took around two years to get used to new ways of eating and drinking (a sandwich feels like it used to after a Sunday roast!) but it took around a further three years to work through the impact of what had happened, the new doubts about the future and mourning the physical loss of part of me. A digestive system with less capacity and efficiency combined with less stored energy inevitably leads to increased fatigue as well as constant borderline anaemia and dehydration. Unsurprisingly this can really affect my levels of concentration at times as well as other ways in which I think or speak, but I did not refer to myself as being ‘disabled’.

No one would have guessed from looking at me that I was disabled according to the Equality Act, and as with the many thousands of others with less-visible conditions (we do not ‘hide’ them) we want to fit in and ‘belong’ whilst being afforded compassion and support in order to thrive at work. My home Force has come such a long way from then when disability was almost exclusively associated with illness and the potential for absence. I returned to work and a meeting with Occupational Health was only to agree my phased return to work plan with no discussion about how my life had changed. At times I was mocked when I needed to eat in long meetings, and on the occasions when I started to experience crippling cramps around my back and abdomen I would pretend I was leaving to make an urgent call so I could pace an empty office somewhere for 45 minutes waiting for the pain to ease. One of the most disabling circumstances we experience is not feeling able to go to work as our authentic selves. I was lucky that a few individuals believed in me and encouraged me to become an active operational commander even during the many moments I continued to doubt my credibility and resilience… and still occasionally do.

At that time the Force had an identified ‘Disability Champion’ whose primary interest was disability in the community and there was minimal knowledge or interest in reasonable adjustments, so I knew that being open as being ‘disabled’ could change how I might be perceived and treated – accepting that I hated that label and believed it could affect my future career, I needed to work as my true self. I also wished to play an active part in supporting others who had diverse abilities yet restricted by others who were distracted by what those colleagues were less able to do. This led to me becoming the Chair of our local network, and eventually the national lead of our Association, which is immense privilege. We have a way to go in terms of disability being valued as much as some other diverse characteristics and in some meetings I still have to push to make our voice heard, feeling at times like I am the wasp at the picnic! However, we are making progress.

The Five Trust Tests should be commended to all organisations and clearly sets out what it takes to secure the confidence of their staff , including active support for staff networks, so those who are mentally or physically different can dare to share their identity of living (not necessarily suffering) with those conditions (not necessarily illnesses). It takes more than identified champions, policies and campaigns to achieve that and police forces will benefit from being seen to ‘walk the talk’ before those staff trust there is a psychologically safe environment within which they can bring their true selves to work and be supported to fulfil their potential. We have the opportunity to ensure others are now supported and included, and I will certainly continue to play my part by laying a path for others. ∎