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Mental health and well-being

It’s Mental Health Awareness Week. Three academics – from the University of Portsmouth, Dr Risto Talas and Professor Mark Button, and Dr Mark Doyle, of Solent University – write on mental health and well-being among security operatives in the UK.

Research has demonstrated that security operatives can experience multiple stressful and violent experiences in the course of their employment (Imamura et al., 2016). Evidence has demonstrated that stressful and violent exposures can have a significant negative impact on the mental health and wellbeing of these individuals both in terms of general mental health (Pescosolido, 2008) and levels of PTSD (Shevlin and Adamson, 2005).

The frequency and effects of these violent and stressful experiences has been explored in other areas eg. firefighters (Swartz et al., 1998), police officers (Krupnick, 2004) and emergency room personnel (Healy & Tyrell, 2011). However, this has yet to be explored in relation to multiple types of UK security operatives – who increasingly assume many frontline policing roles – in relation to post-traumatic stress symptomology and previous traumas. Individuals who have high levels of PTSD are also more likely to self-medicate with alcohol or drugs (Button, 2019; Derisley et al., 2005). Individuals who have experienced childhood trauma are more vulnerable to subsequent stressors in their life suggesting they will have poorer mental health following stressful exposures in adulthood (Briere et al., 1995; Messman-Moore et al., 2000).

Our research study on the mental health and wellbeing of security operatives has combined a survey questionnaire distributed by the GMB Union via its network of union representatives in the private security industry and a number of follow-up interviews with security operatives. The survey questionnaire comprised questions on the types of Security Industry Authority (SIA) licences held, the main form of employment and duration of service.

The questions also covered general mental and emotional wellbeing; substance misuse; childhood abuse suffered; sexual abuse suffered; physical injuries suffered; and verbal and physical abuse suffered. The survey was completed by 754 security operatives, of whom 19 per cent are military veterans.

The results of the survey show that physical and verbal abuse is a daily occurrence for many:
– 46pc reported being attacked, beaten or mugged during the course of their careers;
– 22pc reported being subject to verbal abuse every day; 23% once a week;
– 11pc reported threats of violence every day; 15% once a week;
– 43pc have witnessed a situation where someone was seriously injured or killed; and
– 37pc have either been seriously injured or have been in a situation where they feared they may be injured or killed.

However, what is of particular concern is the number of respondents who met the full diagnostic criteria for DSM-5 Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (Friedman, 2013): a total of 38pc of the 754 respondents. For over a third of those who completed the questionnaire to be suffering from PTSD is a very worrying finding.

From the interviews conducted, a pattern emerged whereby the security operatives felt as though they were worthless cogs in a huge money making machine where their job security hung by a thread. Time and again examples emerged of security operatives being dismissed for the most minor of misdemeanours, such as leaning against a pillar while on guard duty outside a courtroom; being unable to respond to a security alert when on the toilet; or returning late from a break when the rest area was ten minutes’ walk from the work station.

Furthermore, tales of verbal and physical abuse arose in Jobcentres, outside nightclubs and perhaps the worst was a security guard being beaten up by four men in a supermarket car park when the guard chased one of them out for stealing a bottle of whisky. The issue was that because the guard had left the store premises to chase after the thief, at the insistence of the store manager, the guard was uninsured because he had left the premises and thus had no financial safety net while he recovered in hospital and during his convalescence.

As a result, many of the security operatives have reported suffering from mental health and well being issues, but there is little or no support provided by the security companies, the majority of whom believe that as there is an almost inexhaustible supply of security operatives looking for work at minimum wage levels, little needs to be done for those who suffer.

Perhaps the most disturbing finding is that Jobcentre staff are reported to be actively encouraging the long term unemployed to train as security operatives as little or no qualifications are required. It is not certain that the long term unemployed themselves possess the mental strength to be able to cope with such a demanding and potentially damaging work environment.

Our research is funded by a faculty grant from the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences, University of Portsmouth.


Button, M. (2019) Private Policing. 2nd Edition. Abingdon: Routledge.

Briere, J., Elliott, D. M., Harris, K., & Cotman, A. (1995). Trauma Symptom Inventory: Psychometrics and Association With Childhood and Adult Victimization in Clinical Samples. Journal of Interpersonal Violence, 10(4), 387–401.

Derisley, J., Libby, S., Clark, S., Reynolds, S. (2005) Mental health, coping and family-functioning in parents of young people with obsessive-compulsive disorder and with anxiety disorders. British Journal of Clinical Psychology, 44, 3, pp439 – 444

Friedman, M.J. (2013). Finalizing PTSD in DSM-5: getting here from there and where to go next. Journal of traumatic stress, 26 5, 548-56 .

Healy, S., & Tyrrell, M. (2011). Stress in emergency departments: experiences of nurses and doctors. Emergency Nurse, 19(4), 31–37.

Imamura, K., Kawakami, N., Tsuno, K., Tsuchiya, M., Shimada, K., Namba, K. Effects of web-based stress and depression literacy intervention on improving symptoms and knowledge of depression among workers: A randomized controlled trial. Journal of Affective Disorders, Volume 203, 2016, Pages 30-37

Krupnick, J., Green, B., Stockton, P., Goodman, L., Corcoran, C. and Petty, R. (2004). Mental Health Effects of Adolescent Trauma Exposure in a Female College Sample: Exploring Differential Outcomes Based on Experiences of Unique Trauma Types and Dimensions. Psychiatry: Interpersonal and Biological Processes: Vol. 67, No. 3, pp. 264-279.

Messman-Moore, T. L., & Long, P. J. (2000). Child Sexual Abuse and Revictimization in the Form of Adult Sexual Abuse, Adult Physical Abuse, and Adult Psychological Maltreatment. Journal of Interpersonal Violence, 15(5), 489–502.

Pescosolido, B., Jensen, P., Martin, J., Perry, B., Olafsdottir, S. and Fettes, D. (2008) Public Knowledge and Assessment of Child Mental Health Problems: Findings From the National Stigma Study-Children, Journal of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry, Volume 47, Issue 3, Pp 339-349,

Shevlin, M., & Adamson, G. (2005). Alternative Factor Models and Factorial Invariance of the GHQ-12: A Large Sample Analysis Using Confirmatory Factor Analysis. Psychological Assessment, 17(2), 231–236.

Swartz, M., Wagner, H., Swanson, W., Burns, B., George, L., Padgett, D. (1998) Comparing Use of Public and Private Mental Health Services: The Enduring Barriers of Race and Age. Community Mental Health Journal. Vol 34, 2, pp133-144


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