Lack of workplace flexibility driving women from policing, study finds

A new study has found the lack of flexible working arrangements is contributing to a record number of women leaving the police service.

Apr 8, 2024
By Paul Jacques

The research from the University of Portsmouth carried out and analysed 62 detailed interviews with male and female police officers who had voluntarily resigned from the police service between January 2021 and June 2022 – a time which researchers say saw an “unprecedented wave of resignations sweeping through law enforcement agencies across England and Wales”.

The findings highlight organisational inflexibility as a key factor driving officers to leave their roles – particularly female officers.

The study identified three areas where the police service was perceived to be unsupportive or resistant to making adjustments: in dealing with additional needs-disabilities or health issues; in conflicts with non-work commitments, such as childcare; and in support of officers transitioning to part-time working.

While previous research has touched on various factors contributing to officer resignations – such as perceptions of organisational injustice, concerns about promotion and poor leadership – this study is the first to examine the specific issue of organisational inflexibility.

Professor Sarah Charman, from the School of Criminology and Criminal Justice at the University of Portsmouth, said: “We know that the police service suffers from endemic cultural barriers to flexible working arrangements and we wanted to delve deeper into the true nature of this issue.

“There is clear evidence of the challenging and, in many cases, seemingly insurmountable problems in attempting to combine the management of additional needs, caring responsibilities and moving to part-time work, which disproportionately affect women.

“Our participants’ response was to voluntarily resign, thus ending their policing careers.”

Officers expressed frustration with the lack of support and accommodation of additional needs, disabilities or health issues. Participants cited instances where they felt marginalised and unwanted due to their conditions, with organisational responses often falling short of addressing their concerns effectively.

One participant said: “All the job ever saw was the things that I can’t do anymore, or the things that I couldn’t do because of my illness… yes, I’m disabled, but it doesn’t mean that I can’t do anything.”

Another said: “I’ve got dyslexia and also ADHD and I didn’t really feel like those were really supported.”

Conflicts with non-work commitments, particularly those related to childcare and parental responsibilities, emerged as a significant challenge for many officers. The study highlights instances where officers felt overlooked or disregarded when requesting time off or flexible working arrangements to fulfil their family obligations.

One interviewee said: “It’s problematic, especially if there is two of you and you’re both police officers and you’ve both been told you can’t have time of or you can’t do this or you both need to work a football match and you can’t get home.”

Another participant said: “I understand that there’s an operational need… but just give people the time to be a parent, that would make a big difference, organisationally they’re not where they need to be to support working mums.”

The study found transitioning to part-time working also proved to be a daunting task for some officers, particularly women returning from maternity or sick leave. Participants described encountering structural barriers and a lack of organisational knowledge regarding part-time arrangements, leading to frustration and disillusionment.

As one participant said: “I tried to do part-time, but you were basically just doing a full-time job in part-time hours. Quite often on Saturday mornings I would get up at half four, I would go into the office, do a few hours and get home before the kids woke up.”

The study paints a stark picture of the cultural norms within policing that perpetuate inflexibility and discourage diversity in work arrangements.

Participants reported facing stigma and resistance from supervisors and managers, who often adhered to traditional notions of commitment and productivity, neglecting the need for flexibility.

Co-author Dr Jemma Tyson, from the university’s School of Criminology and Criminal Justice, said: “There needs to be a fundamental shift in organisational culture towards greater flexibility and inclusivity.

“The police service needs to foster proactive measures to challenge cultural barriers, promote flexible working practices at all levels of the organisation, and encourage a culture of mutual flexibility between employers and employees.”

The study highlights the urgent need for policing agencies to address the systemic issues driving officer resignations and recognise retention as a site of inequality within policing.

“By implementing evidence-based strategies to support officers’ diverse needs and promote a more flexible work environment, agencies can mitigate the risk of further attrition and ensure the long-term sustainability of their workforce,” said researchers.

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