Blog post

From the Armed Forces to civilian life

There are 2.6 million Armed Forces veterans in the UK and while half of them are over 75, almost a million are of working age [i], while a further 16,000 leave the Service [ii] each year to start new civilian lives.

By Paula Holt - 6 August 2018

This readjustment can be a real challenge for some veterans – it isn’t just a change of job, it’s a complete change of lifestyle and everything they have known. As one of the largest employers in the East Midlands, the University of Derby is supporting veterans in a number of areas as they make this transition, from establishing new careers to promoting mental health.

The challenges of transitioning to civilian life

Dr Paula Holt, Pro Vice-Chancellor Dean of the College of Health and Social Care, has personal experience of transitioning from the military and is championing the University’s work to become a forces-friendly organisation. A former mental health nurse, she served as a British Army officer for eight years, including on operational duties in Bosnia with the UN and NATO.

“The transition from the Services to civilian life can be challenging for some veterans,” says Dr Holt. “They may have to find somewhere to live for the first time, or look for their first civilian job. Many recruiters ask for previous experience in a particular industry, which can present another issue for veterans who don’t always recognise the value of their transferable skills.

“There’s also a myth around Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) being more prevalent within the Armed Forces population, which can negatively impact how veterans may be perceived by potential employers. Although we do see incidences of PTSD among veterans, research has shown that it is no more common than in the civilian community.”

Such barriers can be overcome by promoting the fact that veterans bring great benefits to the workforce. According to the latest Veterans Work report [iii], 90% of those employing veterans say they perform well, with particular strengths in communication, time management and team working. As a result, 53% of employers promote veterans quicker than the rest of the workforce.

“Resettlement provided by the Armed Forces is excellent, and is focused on helping veterans understand how valuable their transferable skills are in the civilian world and how they can articulate these to employers,” says Dr Holt. “Their core skills, competencies, attitudes and values make them an ideal match for many areas of employment.

“As a University, we see the value in veterans. We offer them our support in transitioning to civilian life, not just because it is morally the right thing to do, but because we recognise what they can bring to our organisation, both as students and members of staff, and what they can offer to a wide variety of professions.”

To reflect this commitment, the University is a member of the Defence Employer Recognition Scheme, which encourages businesses to recognise the value of veterans in the organisation.

Supporting veterans’ mental and physical health

The University is signed up to, and promotes, the Armed Forces Covenant, particularly among health and care professionals who may work with veterans. Veterans can be reluctant to seek help when they experience mental or physical health problems, says Dr Holt. “When Forces personnel go through basic training, they can be pushed to their limits. They may be tired, hungry or have sore feet, but they’re expected to get on with it.

“That kind of stoicism is deeply rooted and many veterans don’t feel comfortable asking for help or support. It’s really important that, if someone is a veteran, health professionals establish whether they are presenting issues relating to their service and ensure they receive the right treatment in a timely fashion.”

To help address this, the University ran workshops funded by Health Education England in 2016 to give health professionals a greater understanding of veterans’ needs. The sessions gave an insight into what life is like in the Armed Forces, what the experience of using health and care services feels like for veterans, and how to signpost them to appropriate support.

This support can involve thinking more creatively, especially when dealing with mental health issues.

The arts can be used as part of a veteran’s recovery after injury or trauma to help them deal with their feelings, particularly if they find it difficult to talk about what has happened to them. The Soldiers Arts Academy focuses on drama, providing workshops and putting on theatre productions with a cast of veterans and professional actors. The Academy won the Inspiration Group Award in the Soldiering On Awards 2018 for their work, which included the touring production of the play Soldier On.

Dr Holt, one of the Academy’s directors, has seen how effective this approach can be: “Using the arts for recovery can be cathartic and helps people address their feelings through different mediums, but at the moment talking therapies, such as Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, are the focus of funding and treatment from statutory services for those with post-trauma difficulties.

“We know that not everyone can articulate their pain verbally, and that expressing themselves through art is helpful, but we need an evidence base to support our work in this area. The University’s new Centre of Excellence in Arts and Health will focus some of its attention on providing this evidence, along with a growing research interest group looking at the arts and health more broadly.”

Higher education as a stepping stone to new careers

“Veterans are resilient, committed, reliable and confident decision-makers – all of which makes them highly employable,” says Dr Holt.

“Because most leave the Services relatively young, due to the nature of what they do, higher education as a way of stepping into another profession can be really quite attractive. We’re working hard to engage those veterans who are ready to return to civilian life, and giving them opportunities to pursue new careers in health and social care. A similar scheme has been set up for teaching.”

Last year, the University received just under £19,000 from the Local Covenant Grant Fund to run events for veterans wanting a new career in the health and social care sector. Workshops were delivered at the University’s Armed Forces family days this summer, with activities run by specialists in their field to give an insight into new career paths such as nursing, social care, therapies and radiography.

Signing the Armed Forces Covenant

In 2017, to coincide with Armistice Day, the University signed The Armed Forces Covenant – a promise from the nation that those who serve or have served in the Armed Forces, and their families, are treated fairly.

Organisations sign the Covenant to confirm publicly that they recognise the value that members of the Armed Forces community contribute to society. The Covenant encourages them to develop a relationship with those who work in their business or access their products or services.

Inspired by the signing of the Covenant, mental health student nurse Pippa Chillman set up the Student Action for Armed Forces Communities (SAAFCO) society in 2017 and is now its president.

“SAAFCO’s focus is on promoting understanding of the Covenant among students and building links between the University, the Armed Forces and the local community,” Pippa says. “A number of our members are veterans and this society means a lot to us all. We are proud and grateful for the opportunity to be part of the work that is going on to support the Armed Forces community.”

Pippa’s idea for a themed day to celebrate the Armed Forces community and the signing of the Covenant was embraced by the University, with SAAFCO working alongside Claire Carter from the College of Health and Social Care to create educational and interactive summer events for all ages. The University and SAAFCO held a family day at Kedleston Road on Saturday 30 June to coincide with Armed Forces Day, followed by a second event at the St Helena Chesterfield Campus on Saturday 7 July.

The days involved community-focused talks from guest speakers from local charities and organisations, workshops that could be booked on arrival, stalls advising on support and opportunities for Armed Forces personnel and their families, as well as fun activities for younger visitors to take part in.

The events were particularly significant as this year marks the 100th anniversary of the Royal Air Force. To celebrate the centenary, the University is a featured patron in a specially-commissioned commemorative album produced in support of the RAF100 Appeal. The aim of the Appeal is to raise money for the RAF family through events and activities and to create a lasting legacy nationally.

[i] “Annual Population Survey: UK Armed Forces Veterans residing in Great Britain, 2015”, Ministry of Defence, October 2016

[ii] “UK Armed Forces Monthly Service Personnel Statistics 1 June 2016”, Ministry of Defence, July 2016

[iii] “Veterans Work – Recognising the potential of ex-Service personnel, 2016”, Deloitte, in collaboration with the Forces in Mind Trust and the Officers’ Association

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About the author

Paula Holt, College of Health and Social Care

Paula Holt
Former Pro Vice-Chancellor and Dean of the College of Health, Psychology and Social Care

As former Pro Vice-Chancellor (PVC) Dean of the College of Health, Psychology and Social Care, Paula led and managed a large group of staff across two schools (The School of Nursing and Professional Practice and School of Allied Health and Social Care), to develop and deliver a range of high-quality health and care programmes.