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Taking care of ourselves to take better care of others

Our custodial colleagues serve society in one of Serco’s most challenging operational environments. They are responsible for some of the most vulnerable and – in some cases – violent individuals in society. To fulfil a demanding duty of care, they must be ready to respond quickly and effectively, with authority and compassion, in all manner of tragic, traumatic and threatening situations. 

Mark Hanson is Contract Director at HMP (Her Majesty’s Prison) Lowdham Grange. On commencing that role, his immediate priority was to ensure a higher level of support for staff wellbeing. 

“Colleague wellbeing is fundamental to the success of a prison,” explains Mark. “Any stressful event can lead to them feeling overwhelmed and unable to cope. Emotional resilience and effective coping strategies are key. There was a helpline here, but our people needed more than a one-size-fits-all voice on the end of the phone. They needed a service they could easily access, engage with and relate to – something safer, more human and more empathetic.” 

Mark engaged psychological counsellor, Tracey Hoult to provide an onsite counselling service at the prison. Today, Tracey spends two days a week at Lowdham Grange, as well as visiting Serco-operated HMP & Young Offenders Institute Doncaster. 

Tracey has seen profound changes in the years she has provided prison counselling services: 

“There’s more violence and aggression today than 10-15 years ago. You also have new generations of Prison Officers coming in who can find it difficult to adjust. Part of the challenge can be having no healthy way to process what they see and experience. The risks of desensitisation and absence – and worse – can grow and grow. It can harm the employee and damage relationships with prisoners.” 

Charlotte Goodwin is a Custodial Operational Manager. She first used the service in the aftermath of a personal tragedy: 

“I recognise it now,” says Charlotte, “but I didn’t believe I needed help. I didn’t want to be there. Everyone else saw it, though. I wasn’t myself at all. I didn’t care anymore. A lot of people can go through that – dealing with terrible things and just shutting down.” 

Tracey helped Charlotte to acknowledge and come to terms with the problem. The service is now an important part of Charlotte’s schedule and something she strongly recommends to her own team: 

“Everybody has a breaking point. Without Tracey I could have been off work for a long time. Even on a good day, it’s helpful to know she’s there. It’s a huge part of how we cope.” 

Since introducing the service, Mark has seen clear evidence of improvement: 

“We’re experiencing improvements in retention, absence and the time it takes people to return to work. People who use the service freely admit it’s making a difference – helping them to re-engage.” 

Tracey sees it as indicative of broader changes: 

“The culture of a prison is very much defined by its management, and prison management is evolving in a positive, caring and compassionate way, creating better environments for both employees and prisoners.” 

“There was a real stigma around not coping,” says Mark, “but that’s diminishing and the tone in the workplace is really improving. People aren’t embarrassed to admit they need help.” 

“The culture is changing,” agrees Charlotte. “People are more open and educated about things like mental health. It doesn’t matter how well prepared you are, you need something to help you come to terms with the reality. It takes a lot of strength to do what we do, but asking for help? Getting help? That makes us stronger.”