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NATALIE HILL (West Midlands National Probation Service)

NATALIE HILL (West Midlands National Probation Service)

COMMENDEE 2021-22: Described as “an exceptional leader”, Natalie’s Commendation is for her exemplary management and support of staff dealing with a critical incident, and its aftermath, in her role as Head of Staffordshire NPS.

An outstanding leader

The impact of stress among those who work on our behalf in prisons, probation, or youth justice, is a longstanding concern. By definition, this is work that can be difficult and demanding, both professionally and personally. Collectively, such stress has known impacts on recruitment, retention, and morale. Meanwhile the impacts on individuals, which can include mental and physical health issues, can all too often remain hidden from view. Recognising this, and barely a month into her new role as a senior leader, Natalie brought a proactive and humane approach to supporting staff facing a critical incident. She has continued these efforts during the pandemic, which have since been used to inform better practice across the probation service.

There are around 14,400 probation officers supervising some 224,000 offenders in the UK. Unsurprisingly, research suggests that dealing with high-risk offenders, in particular, can be extremely stressful. Critical incidents, inevitably, bring enormous stresses front and centre for all concerned. Most important, of course, are the victims and their families. Yet these incidents, while mercifully rare, have impacts on the much wider community. There will always be many others, too, who are affected, publicly and privately, as both professionals and as private individuals. Necessarily, there are also the very real and pressing concerns of the public, media, politicians and others, all wanting answers from systems devised and run and staffed by people who are, at the end of the day, like all of us, ‘all too human’.

Natalie’s response in these circumstances was to recognise the primary importance, at all times, of the victims’ families, while also realising that there would be significant impacts on many others, including the staff for whom she was responsible. Meanwhile the arrival of the Covid pandemic added yet further levels of complexity. In the face of these circumstances, says one senior colleague, Natalie kept finding ways to “just bring a human element” to a situation that now involved “managing complex emotions” through “remote meetings and social distancing restrictions”.

Another senior colleague calls Natalie “an absolute tower of strength”, adding that “personally I can’t thank her enough for being a listening ear and holding it all together.” Another colleague praised her for getting and staying in touch, and always trying to offer “positive solutions to difficult situations.”  While meeting the additional professional challenges created by the pandemic, as well as her personal responsibilities home-schooling two young boys and supporting relatives, her Regional Director notes that Natalie continued to be “an outstanding leader in extraordinary circumstances.” She was “exemplary” in her “approach, ideas and execution” as she managed, first hand, a very difficult set of “practicalities, emotions, and relationships”.

Natalie recognises that she, too, “needed to manage my own emotions and the level of responsibility I felt”. She also describes the “highly emotive” and “personally challenging” contacts she had with victims and families – a process, she strongly emphasises, which she also found to be “a privilege”, one through which she sought, she adds, “to hopefully offer some support and clarity.”

A critical incident – in which the worst and most stressful fears of those working in this sector are realised – is, quite correctly, never going to be less than highly demanding for all those involved. Natalie clearly tried to meet those demands, in the most difficult of circumstances, in a way that ensured a large number people were able to keep working, while also addressing their human as well as professional needs. Natalie’s Critical Incident and Staff Support Guide has since been shared with the National Senior Leadership Team and used by managers and leaders who have, in turn, themselves had to deal with the devastating impact that critical incidents can have on so many.