Over the past couple of months it’s been difficult to ignore the headlines covering the outcomes of the two reports into workplace culture within the UK emergency services. The damning Met Police report by Baroness Casey and Independent Culture Review at London Fire Brigade (LFB) have unearthed truths about both services that, whilst appalling, are hard to find shocking.
Nearly a quarter century after the MacPherson report showed the systemic racism within the Met Police, the recent report has proven that insignificant progress has been made, and that the issues we see there are not confined to the police force. The issue of toxic workplace culture within British emergency services is endemic, and needs addressing urgently.
Both reports make reasonable recommendations for change, and the onus is on Sir Mark Rowley and Commissioner Andy Roe to ensure that these are just the baseline of change within their organisations so that members of the Met Police and London Fire Brigade can confidently go into work and continue to support the public to the best of their abilities.
The severity of toxic behaviour across the emergency services industry
The report into the London Metropolitan Police included countless disclosures of misogyny, racism, islamophobia and much more. Often erroneously passed off as ‘banter’, tasteless jokes (often about rape, physical and domestic abuse), harassment, and discrimination all appear to be commonplace across the service.
The independent investigation into the LFB painted an equally eery picture for minoritised firefighters within the service.
Sadly, although the Met Police report and the LFB Culture Review have brought to light the severity of toxic behaviour in the capital’s emergency services institutions, it isn’t contained to just London.
A 2015 survey of more than 1,000 police staff across the UK found that 57% of them had been personally bullied at their current place of work and 59% said they had witnessed bullying.
To shift this reality, those witnesses and victims of harassment would need to speak up. However, with 40% of respondents saying they were not very confident that their force would deal fairly with a complaint about bullying, it is unsurprising that only 23% had taken any action to address bullying in the workplace in the last 12 months.
In fire brigades across the country, news stories of rampant bullying and harassment have been reported on, where several firefighters have been sacked for perpetrating the behaviour. A survey by ICM shows a third of firefighters have been bullied and harassed, a government report in 2019 found that 2 in 5 Gloucestershire firefighters feel bullied or harassed at work, and in February 2023 it was revealed 13 firefighters were under investigation at Greater Manchester Fire Service for gross misconduct, including four for sexual misconduct.
There is also the prevalence of toxic behaviour in other emergency services and the public sector, including the NHS and ambulance services. 68% of London Ambulance staff surveyed said they had been bullied and harassed in the workplace. And North East Ambulance Service recently faced accusations of bullying a whistleblower who alleged they covered up evidence of mistakes, as well as a CQC-run survey of almost 500 staff found over 50% “did not feel safe to report concerns without fear of what would happen as a result and did not believe that the organisation would take appropriate action”.
It appears the emergency is happening right under their own roof.
Wellbeing in the emergency services
But it’s not just toxic behaviour that’s a problem. Research by Mind in 2019 on the mental health and wellbeing of staff in emergency services revealed that 70.4% of police personnel, 60.2% of fire service staff and volunteers, and 75.8% of ambulance service staff and volunteers all had personal experiences of mental health problems. Lack of management support, poor leadership and bullying in the workplace, among many other reasons, were factors in these statistics being so high. It also found that HR and management were consistently two of the lowest sources of support from which they would seek help from, showing deep rooted lack of trust across these institutions.
Addressing employee wellbeing needs to go hand in hand with improving workplace culture, given the influence each has over the other. For any of this to take effect reporting rates need to increase, and the barriers to report thoroughly understood, with strategies in place to reduce and remove them.
How do you increase reporting rates in the Met Police and LFB?
Both the Met Police and London Fire Brigade have already begun implementing routes for their staff to report unacceptable behaviour.
The Met have Operation Signa, an internal, anonymous recording tool they committed to launching in the first Rebuilding Trust strategy in December 2021.
LFB piloted the “Safe to Speak” Programme in September 2021, which was modelled on the NHS’ Freedom to Speak Up Guardian network.
Both are a positive step forward, though neither without flaw.
Baroness Casey’s Met Police review points out multiple failures to act on recommendations from investigations into reports of misconduct.
Similarly the LFB review summarised that the pilot programme “is not sufficiently trusted and that further policies and dedicated resources are needed to make it easier for people to report clear examples of racism, misogyny and bullying of staff.”
These aren’t unfamiliar challenges to any sector. Our data shows that the most common barriers to reporting are often:
- Fear of not being believed
- Fear nothing will be done
- Fear of repercussions such as reduction in work or even dismissal
- Fear of retaliation from the perpetrator if they found out they had been reported/had their name attached to a report
The positive news is, there are key steps that both organisations can take to address these issues.
Recommendation 2 of the LFB review asks that the Brigade “consider anonymised reporting of incidents relating to bullying, misogyny and racism.” This is powerful, recognising that “In a closed team-based culture individuals and groups can and have become stigmatised for reporting poor behaviour or bad experiences.” Anonymous reporting allows victims or witnesses to circumvent these concerns, allowing a safe way to report, even if direct action can’t be taken toward to perpetrator of the behaviour.
Operation Signa is chiefly used for addressing misogyny, sexism and sexual harassment. Explicitly mentioning other forms of harassment such as banter, acts of bullying, and other microincivilities, would help to legitimise the very real experiences of individuals across the organisation.
Like with many organisations facing a culture crisis, it is not that there is lack of desire to speak up. An external complaints service for staff at LFB already received 212 reports between 28th November 2022 and 23rd March 2023.
We’d urge both services to consider the accessibility of the reporting routes available. Channels that take into account the current culture of the institution, as well as the reality of what prevents reporting specifically within their settings.
This doesn’t start and end with the reporting channels either, the action that’s taken to address individual behaviours and overall cultures both need to be clear to build trust in the organisation.
None of this is to undermine the progress that has been made across both institutions, which were pulled out in the report. However leaders need to continue to be held to account to address the mountain of work to be done to root out the institutional problems that have existed for too long.
Tackling toxic behaviour in the Met Police and LFB with Culture Shift
At Culture Shift we’ve taken in a keen interest in understanding the extent of the issues plaguing public sector workforces.
Through our own research we have found that:
- 2 in 5 people have experienced bullying, discrimination or harassment at work
- 45% have witnessed it
- 39% say a bad workplace culture affected their mental health
- And 35% have left because of a bad workplace culture
These figures are too high, but there are ways to tackle these problems.
We believe that the power and option of being able to report anonymously can really help organisations improve their culture. This isn’t just our opinion – our data showed that whilst only 24% of employees have reported problematic behaviour before, a staggering 68% would be much more likely to if they could do so anonymously.
Our anonymous reporting system massively reduces the barriers to reporting that many people face.
So far we have achieved:
- More than 100 partners working with us, including big names such as EY and the Cabinet Office
- More than 2 million people have access to our platform
- 12,000+ reports made in 5 years
- Unanimously positive feedback about our system, services and team
Our platform allows employees to let their employer know about micro-incivilities they experience or witness through to sexual harassment, or gross misconduct. This can help places such as the Met Police and London Fire Brigade as well as other forces and brigades get a truer picture of what is really happening. And from reports such as those you can take appropriate and targeted action. Some examples include:
- Strengthening policies around anti-bullying, discrimination and harassment
- Running dedicated and regular campaigns and training and awareness sessions
- Signposting employees to places they can seek support, mental health aid or legal aid
- Remind all employees of the reporting routes they have in place to encourage others to come forward
If you see trends in particular behaviours, you can also:
- Review your force’s diversity and future hiring, onboarding and off-boarding processes
- Ensure procedures and investigations carried out are fair, thorough and transparent
- Look at where areas may need restructuring if there are consistent reports being made in them
- Find out what might need improving in your organisation to make it an inclusive environment, such as wellbeing support, safe spaces and ERGs, or even the work events you hold
The long road to reform in the emergency services
The Met Police report, LFB’s Culture Review and other condemning reviews of emergency services all over the UK will hopefully serve as eye-opening lessons to those with the power to enact change. Each of these organisations have been accused of harbouring toxic work cultures for decades, and we understand it takes more than some quick fixes and tick boxing exercises to rebuild trust and change cultures.
We hope anybody working within HR, ED&I, Wellbeing or People and Culture in this industry will agree that change is not only needed, but achievable.
You can find out more about the benefits of anonymous reporting and using the strength of data through our service here, or alternatively, contact our team who will be more than happy to assist you in taking those steps on the road to reform.