Wellbeing and work: it’s about time

by Dr SJ Lennie, Lecturer in Policing Organisation and Practice at The Open University

I am a lecturer and researcher at the Open University and as an ex-police officer I care deeply about the mental health of the police, and this is where the majority of my research is focussed. I am also passionate about the wider role of organisational culture in employee wellbeing, and though I welcome the more recent focus on mental health within society and business, I am increasingly frustrated by what I see as organisation’s tokenistic attitude to wellbeing.

Though we may feel we have moved on from the obligatory fruit basket by the water cooler approach to mental health, fundamentally not much has changed for the employee.  A recent article by Cholteeva (2022) identifies a third of organisations as ‘wellbeing washing’, where organisations are publicly supporting mental health, but not supporting employees internally or through action.

Wellbeing is not something that can be addressed via posting on social media, or an event held at head office on a specified day a year; it is not enough to offer counselling or train people in mental health first aid (though these are good things) – organisations have a responsibility to prevent mental ill-health through work, and this means threading wellbeing and a genuine concern for employee mental health in all policy and procedure.  To quote the Health and Safety Executive (no date):

‘Employers have a legal duty to protect workers from stress at work by doing a risk assessment and acting on it.’

The key word for me here is protect. It’s about not making people ill in the first place and a lot of this is about giving people time and space to do the things that keep them well, also known as self-care.  Though many organisations espouse a flexible and accommodating operating model, an employee’s ability to practice self-care is often dependent on their workload and organisational culture, and both are often limiting, leading to an overworked and stressed workforce. The irony is that the more stressed people are, the less productive they are too (LeBlanc, 2009).

The Health and Safety Executive defines stress as the ‘adverse reaction people have to excessive pressures or other types of demand placed on them’ (HSE, no date).  Physiologically stress is understood as any stimuli that increases arousal within the Autonomic Nervous System (ANS) and this is key to our physical and psychological health (Ziegler, 2012).

The ANS consists of the Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS) and the Parasympathetic Nervous System (PNS).  It is the SNS that activates in response to both physical and psychological stress and is more commonly known as the fight or flight response. If, for example, you are facing a threat and need to respond, the SNS will quickly mobilize your body to take action: adrenaline and cortisol flood the body, raising your heart rate and blood pressure, dilating pupils and pumping muscles, priming you to meet that threat. As the original intention of the SNS response is to survive a short-term threat, long term health regulation such as the digestive and immune system shut down.

Once the threat has passed, the PNS will then start to dampen these responses, slowly returning your body to its normal, resting state.  This is why the PNS is know as ‘rest and digest’: literally the engagement of the digestive system, the body calms down, the heart rate reduces as less chemicals are circulating the system, energy is conversed to be used later, the immune system is able to act and cognitive functioning is engaged (Tindle and Tadi, 2021).

These two systems work in conjunction to manage the body’s responses depending upon the situation and need. Chronic stress occurs when the body experiences stressors with such frequency or intensity that the autonomic nervous system does not have an adequate chance to activate the relaxation response on a regular basis. This means that the body remains in a constant state of physiological arousal.  Chronic stress can lead to an impairment of cognitive functioning, and lead to mental ill-health such as anxiety and depression. Chronic stress can also lead cardiovascular disease (CVD), diabetes, autoimmune diseases, upper respiratory infections (URIs), and poorer wound healing (Cohen et al., 2012; Sawar et al., 2021).

Let’s focus in here: stress also affects cognitive performance.  The brain becomes focused on the immediate here and now and the access of information from multiple sources and memory is restricted, and consequently stress effects decision making and effectiveness on tasks that require divided processing.  Chronic stress is not good for productivity (LeBlanc, 2009).

However, ‘pressure and workload’ are common stresses within organisations with relentless workloads and increasing expectations dominating culture (Cholteeva, 2022). More and more employees are struggling to switch off, or switch to their PNS.  Organisations have a responsibility to not only reduce the stress of the workforce but to actively support them to rest and digest, and it is not only a protective action in regards employee mental and physical health, cognitive shut down is key to productivity.

The steps are simple, we know that yoga and meditation engage the PNS (Kumar et al., 2021) but as subjective as stress is, so is wellbeing and each employee needs the space and support to find out what works for them and time to engage in activities in a meaningful way, without the barriers of shame, guilt or fear.

But this takes time, and the true question is: are organisations truly willing to invest in their employees and give them time and space and the freedom from the pressure and demand of a punitive workload to enable themselves to be well?  Too often wellbeing and good mental health are seen as the responsibility of the individual, but it is actually the gift of the organisation. The gift of time.



LeBlanc, V. R. (2009). The effects of acute stress on performance: implications for health professions education. Academic Medicine84(10), S25-S33.

Ziegler, M. G. (2012). Psychological stress and the autonomic nervous system. In Primer on the autonomic nervous system (pp. 291-293). Academic Press.

Health and Safety Executive (HSE) (Not Date) Work Related Stress and How to Manage It. [available at https://www.hse.gov.uk/stress/overview.htm Accessed on: 28th October 2022.

Kumar, S., Kumar, B., Kumari, R., & Kumari, M. Impact of Yoga on the Human Body’s Parasympathetic Nervous System.

Tindle, J., & Tadi, P. (2021). Neuroanatomy, parasympathetic nervous system. In StatPearls [Internet]. StatPearls Publishing.

Tafet, G.E. (2022) Neuroscience of Stress : From Neurobiology to Cognitive, Emotional and Behavioral Sciences. Cham: Springer International Publishing AG.

Golkar, A., Johansson, E., Kasahara, M., Osika, W., Perski, A., & Savic, I. (2014). The influence of work-related chronic stress on the regulation of emotion and on functional connectivity in the brain. PloS one9(9), e104550.

Cohen, S., Janicki-Deverts, D., Doyle, W. J., Miller, G. E., Frank, E., Rabin, B. S., & Turner, R. B. (2012). Chronic stress, glucocorticoid receptor resistance, inflammation, and disease risk. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences109(16), 5995-5999.

Huang, Jie; Wang, Yansong; You, Xuqun (2016-12-01). “The Job Demands-Resources Model and Job Burnout: The Mediating Role of Personal Resources”. Current Psychology35 (4): 562–569. doi:10.1007/s12144-015-9321-2ISSN 1046-1310.

Xanthopoulou, D., A. B. Bakker, E. Demerouti and W. B. Schaufeli (2007). “The role of personal resources in the job demands-resources model.” International journal of stress management 14(2)

Cholteeva, Y. (2022) “More than a third of businesses are ‘wellbeing washing’, study shows.’ People Management. Accessed at: https://www.peoplemanagement.co.uk/article/1803077/third-businesses-wellbeing-washing-study-shows Accessed on: 30th October 2022.

Facing the future: Police learning in the metaverse


by Simon Hull, Lecturer in Work Based Learning at The Open University

There’s always a lot of hype surrounding new technology, how it will work and evolve and often accompanied by claims as to how it will improve our lives. But one vision of our digital future has received increasing exposure in the popular press in recent times that doesn’t yet appear to be fading away: the metaverse.

I’m intrigued by the metaverse. I’ve long since had an interest with virtual reality (VR) and its application to learning in work-based settings, not least operational policing. Indeed, The Open University has made great strides into teaching with VR through the Open Justice court room application, in which learners can explore a court building and learn about how it functions. But the metaverse takes VR several steps further, potentially opening up new avenues for immersive police education and training.

Whilst many people may be new to the term, the metaverse is not a new concept. The idea was first introduced by author Neal Stephenson in his 1992 sci-fi novel called Snow Crash. Stephenson envisaged a digital 3D world called the Metaverse that runs parallel to our own and where its real-life users have avatars that carry out their day-to-day lives in virtual reality. More recently, Ernest Cline’s novel (and subsequent Steven Spielberg movie) Ready Player One depicted a type of metaverse in which society worked, studied and played. The term then gained publicity in 2021 when Facebook creator Mark Zuckerberg revealed that the company was being renamed Meta and would focus upon building ‘3D spaces in the metaverse will let you socialize, learn, collaborate and play’ (Meta, no date).

Academic discussion around the implications for using the metaverse in education is not a new concept (Tlili et al., 2022) and there have been many attempts to define what the metaverse is. Mystakidis (2022, pp. 486) defines it as ‘the post-reality universe, a perpetual and persistent multiuser environment merging physical reality with digital virtuality. It is based on the convergence of technologies that enable multisensory interactions with virtual environments, digital objects and people such as virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR)’.

This is quite a mouthful, but many people will be drawn to the idea of existing in a shared virtual world where they can live and work together, building communities that thrive and challenge us just as any other does.

As Mystakidis suggests, the metaverse isn’t really one technology. In 2006, a research body called the Acceleration Studies Foundation (ASF), set out a roadmap in which 4 types of metaverse were conceived, combining real life and virtual reality.

• Augmented Reality can be seen in games such as Pokemon Go and head-up displays (HUD) found in some cars

• Lifelogging, where people capture and share aspects of their daily life through technology is ubiquitous via applications such as Instagram, Twitter and Facebook and also through wearable technology like the Apple Watch

• Mirror Worlds such as Google Maps and Google Earth reflect the real world but add in additional layers of information

• Virtual Reality can be seen in cases including Roblox and Minecraft (Kye et al, 2021).

Howell (2022) links these four concepts to how the metaverse could be used in education, picking out VR as being a crucial aspect in the application of the metaverse in educational settings and it’s VR that many people picture when they think of the metaverse.

It’s also with VR that my own intrigue around how the metaverse could be utilised in police learning is tweaked. VR already allows people to train in unfamiliar environments, becoming proficient in using tools and dealing with situations that may be dangerous, complicated or costly in real-life (think surgeons performing a life-saving operation or firefighters searching a blazing building). The metaverse takes this concept and allows multiple users to exist and collaborate in the same VR world.

I wonder, could this approach be applied to policing?

Communication is a key aspect of policing, not least amongst internal staff. By training together in the metaverse, greater understanding could be achieved and collaborative methods explored, accelerating learning opportunities and providing rich educational environments. For example, rather than training individuals to secure and investigate a crime scene, real-world mimicking simulations could be created in which response officers attend, talk to victims and witnesses, integrate and work with colleagues from specialist units and brief supervisors of their actions. They can also build knowledge as well as skills, learning about the forensic qualities of different materials and objects as they encounter them. Team de-briefings can be held and the scenario could be carried through the full investigation cycle, ending up presenting evidence in court.

Other potential uses could include where police officers and staff  practice conversations that they may undertake in the workplace that are relatively infrequent but that have very high-stakes when they do, such as delivering a death message, talking to a victim of domestic abuse or conducting a disclosure briefing to a  defence solicitor in a custody suite. Learners could learn about psychology and criminology as they walk through crime case studies. Metaverse technology will give a safe space to acquire knowledge, practice skills and discuss the outcomes with colleagues, delivered efficiently without the need for lengthy abstractions from duties.

Of course, there are significant challenges attached to the development of the metaverse and its application to education. Data security, regulation (who will police the metaverse? That’s another question), inequality in access to educational opportunities, and costs (headsets and software development are expensive) (Davis, 2022) are all relevant and could lead to a less than enthusiastic take-up by the public services.

The effect on learners’ mental health through being detached from the real world should not be overlooked. In the metaverse, people can present themselves as they wish to be seen, rather than how they actually are, and lines between the virtual and real worlds may become blurred (Kye et al, 2021). Protecting the welfare of learners will therefore become increasingly valid as opportunities to exist in the metaverse increase.

So, is the metaverse a fad or is it really the next big thing in online technology? Meta are by no means the only company to be investing in this brave new world. Gaming company Roblox already has a significant foothold in the metaverse and Microsoft and Fortnite, amongst others, are developing the technology. The metaverse has the potential to impact upon all of our lives; whether it does so in police learning, virtually or in reality, remains to be seen.


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