The number of people applying to join Police Scotland has more than halved in the last year amid a bitter row over a pay increase.
The force received 2,237 job applications in the 2021/22 financial year – down from 5,611 in the previous 12 months and 4,228 in 2019/20.
Data from a freedom of information request revealed numbers have fallen below the “full officer establishment” quota of 17,234 to 16,805.
Staff told 1919 magazine how they had become “stressed and anxious” by the escalating cost of living crisis, with inflation set to rise above 11% later this year.
Officers “withdrew their goodwill” in a row over a blanket £565 wage rise in what the Scottish Police Federation (SPF) described as the “most overt demonstration of action” in a century last week.
The union’s general secretary, Callum Steele, branded the figures as an “astonishing drop,” adding: “Policing is clearly becoming a less attractive as a career choice, which could be down to issues around pay, funding and falling numbers of officers putting more strain on available resources.
“We are aware there is a very buoyant jobs market in the UK just now and the police service is competing against a whole variety of other professions and industries.
“Clearly, issues around pay and reward and flexibility are playing a part in the falling numbers of applications.”
Talks between the union and the Scottish Government were expected to resume on Monday.
Officers are legally barred from taking direct strike action, but will not start their shifts early or take radio equipment home when their duty ends during the protest against the pay offer.
Union bosses previously described the increase as “derisory”.
One Edinburgh-based officer, who asked to remain anonymous, said concerns about rising costs and how to support her family were being exacerbated by falling numbers putting additional strain on her and colleagues.
“A few years ago, there were 16 officers on shift in my area, but that has fallen to between six and eight and on rare occasions there can be as little as three,” she added.
“I used to be able to enjoy my life at home and with my family outside of work, but we’ve been experiencing years of pay cuts while everything gets more expensive.
“It’s overwhelming. I’m constantly stressed, and I feel depressed and anxious. The £565 offered for the whole year will do nothing to cover the rising costs of food, energy and other essential items.”
Police Scotland previously said it was committed to seeking a pay settlement through the Police Negotiating Board, though officers unanimously rejected the previous offer – which amounted to just 2% for most staff.
First Minister Nicola Sturgeon has said she hoped police officers would agree to a “fair and affordable” deal.
A Scottish Government spokesperson said “fluctuation” in officer numbers was normal, adding current figures had been impacted by the use of the training college at Tulliallen for a base for other UK forces during the Cop26 conference in Glasgow.
She said: “Police officer numbers in Scotland remain significantly up from 2007, and are favourable relative to elsewhere in the UK with around 32 officers per 10,000 population in Scotland compared to around 23 officers per 10,000 population in England and Wales.
“Despite UK Government austerity, we have increased police funding year-on-year since 2016/17 and have invested more than £10bn in policing since the creation of Police Scotland in 2013.”