8th October 2020

Hostage negotiation, change management and mental health…

4th December, 2018

Stephen McAllister

How I became involved in mental health in the workplace


After completing a degree in Psychology, I joined Strathclyde Police in 1987 and was based in the West end of Glasgow, I absolutely loved the job and threw myself into it. I harboured aspirations of being a hostage and crisis negotiator — an ambition that took 14 years to fulfil but was well worth the wait!


Glasgow in the late 80s was a violent place, however, any sign of vulnerability amongst colleagues to the stress and strains of the job was dismissed. The ‘bad back’ was common and alcohol the medication of choice, Police officers retiring after 30 years’ service at this time lived an average of just 5 or 6 years after leaving.


In December 1988 I attended the Lockerbie aircraft disaster — the biggest mass murder incident in the history of the UK. I was 24 years of age with limited experience of death and only on site for 17 hours but it was truly horrific. I knew Lockerbie well - my then partner’s brother lived in the town and my uncle worked in a local factory. I played football with the local team and was a regular visitor to the golf course where many of the bodies lay.


I returned home and Christmas beckoned. I must confess, I didn’t much feel like celebrating.


There was no initial support provided by the organisation; shift camaraderie and alcohol got us through. There was an attempt by our welfare department some weeks later to ‘debrief’ the incident, the aftermath of which for me were flashbacks and nightmares. Fortuitously these never lasted.


However, it became apparent that others were not so fortunate. One colleague who had a more prolonged exposure to events eventually took his own life after short term alcohol abuse. Two others suffered for years prior to a premature death.


With my Psychology background, I felt I should be of more use to the organisation in terms of peer support. I participated in discussions with our Welfare department and Chief Medical Officer to bolster the limited psychological support available to officers who had attended difficult incidents.  This eventually lead to the development of the concept of critical incident briefing and the subsequent introduction of Trauma Response Incident Management (TRIM), which is now used frequently by the Police and Military to help staff cope with the aftermath of traumatic incidents.


I became a Hostage and Crisis Negotiator in 2001 and remained committed to this specialism until I retired from the Police in the summer of 2017. During this time, I deployed to well over a hundred negotiator incidents, both at home and abroad, in addition to selecting, training, coaching and mentoring negotiators. Throughout my career as a Negotiator I became truly aware of the dynamics of human behaviour in crisis and the steps that can be taken to solve or at least mitigate the impact of such crisis.


Over 50% of the incidents I attended were suicide interventions, and I learned that through the use of active listening skills, empathy and rapport building, to achieve influence and change behaviour, negotiators obtained a high success rate in saving those intent on taking their own lives.


I also deployed on a number of occasions internationally to hostage crises in high stake circumstances — with mixed results. This led me to be very mindful of my own mental health.


Sickness absence due to mental ill health


In July 2014 I was promoted to Forth Valley Division of Police Scotland (initially with the Support and Service Delivery portfolio which included absence management but subsequently as Divisional Commander). This Division was transitioning from being a standalone Police service (Central Scotland Police) to that of one of the smallest Divisions within Police Scotland.


Staff were struggling with the transition; the absence rate was the highest in the organisation at just over 6%. It was also the poorest performing across a range of KPIs with significant budget overspend. My initial analysis revealed that there was poor adherence to a variety of protocols relating to absence, performance and budgetary oversight.


However, I realised that the most significant issue was that the Division was traumatised as a result of its transition into Police Scotland. There as a palpable sense of loss for the previous organisation.  


We had a pretty sophisticated absence management system which was not being used effectively in the provision of absence information. Furthermore, return to work interviews after absence were poor and ineffective. Significant work was undertaken to improve adherence in these areas. This revealed that just short of 40% of all absence was due to mental ill-health including anxiety, stress, depression, PTSD, addictions and extended bereavement reactions.


Drawing on my previous experience, I took a trauma response approach to the circumstances I found. This included delivering short resilience workshops to groups of staff and deploying negotiator tactics of active listening, empathy and rapport in order to positively influence absence management and alter staff behaviour towards absence and change.


Using a negotiator’s tactics to manage the crisis associated with organisational change


I decided to utilise negotiator tactics as negotiators are advanced communicators and manage crisis effectively. They use the core concerns of status, role, appreciation, autonomy and affiliation. In addition, they use the weapons of influence, reciprocity, commitment and consistency, authority, liking, scarcity and social proof to change the way we communicate with each other. Such an approach produces influence and creates behavioural change.


I created a Divisional Improvement and Wellbeing Group as a vehicle for change, which I chaired. The group included representatives from all ranks and business areas who had complete autonomy to bring work issues to the forum. Our aim was to take collective responsibility to find solutions to matters of concern.


In 18 months just under 90 actions came to the forum of which just under 70 were resolved. One of these was an admission that mental health was a concern. This resulted in a willingness to look at wider solutions to improving staff mental health, including changes in shift patterns, applying a new operating model, and implementing Headtorch’s works digital solution to improvemental health.


Wechose the Headtorchproduct as it allowed us to deliver mental health support via a mixture of e-learning and group meetings to cement learning and improve group bonding. Such delivery allowed us to reach large number of staff,across a wide geographic area,over a short period of time. I was particularly keen on this method as it included elements of crisis negotiation such as active listening skills, use of empathy and rapport building and had been developed in conjunction with the Department of Psychology at Glasgow University,so was evidence based.


I was confident that it would be a success, however I was blown by the results which indicated that staff were much more willing to discuss their mental health issues (tackled stigma). It alsoimproved knowledge of what creates stress and how to mitigate this and gave supervisors in particular a better understanding of how to have difficult conversations. The quality of return to work interviews improved, access to support services via Occupational Health and the Employee Assistance Programmeincreased.


Within three years, absence rates were less than 3% and the Division was the best performing in the country, according to an independent assessment (outperforming the previous force!)


What can employers learn from this approach?


Negotiators seek to understand, they listen attentively and do not impose their agenda on others. They stick to a tried and tested formula which works, in order to produce safe, effective, mutual solutions to a variety of crises.


This approach is cost effective and can give business a competitive edge by cutting absence, improving productivity and performance. It assists with health and safety compliance. In addition, it makes the workplace a more dynamic and pleasant place, which helps in both attracting staff and retaining them.


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Stephen McAllister

Stephen McAllister is a former Police Officer. He retired as a Divisional Commander after a 30 year career. . He was a Hostage and Crisis Negotiation for 16 years and part of the UK’s International Negotiating Cadre for 8 of those years. He has significant experience in the training, coaching and mentoring of Police Negotiators and crisis management. He has a BA (Hons) in Psychology, a Masters in Forensic and Legal Psychology and a Certificate in Counselling skills. Stephen sits on the board of the Samaritans in Scotland and Lifelink in Glasgow. He also sits on the board of the Golden Jubilee Foundation NHS Trust and the Risk Management Authority for Scotland and provides Hostage and Crisis Negotiation training courses to European Police Forces.

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