Stress in the Workplace: The Epidemic of Police Officers Declining Health
There are many careers that are impacted by occupational stress that can lead to negative emotional, physical and mental outcomes. Police officers are highly impacted by their jobs and are more likely to develop health problems than other careers. This is why it is important to examine possible risk factors so that we can develop proper coping techniques in attempts to avoid any negative outcomes. Police officers are exposed to traumatic situations, making them likely to suffer from work-related stress. This could be a result of their obligations and tasks of their work such as providing help, mediating conflicts between citizens, organizing traffic, and reporting offenses (Talavera et al, 2018). The purpose of this paper is to discuss the variables associated with occupational stress. This paper will discuss who is at risk and what some common risk factors are, what are possible maladaptive and adaptive outcomes, and how maladaptive outcomes can be avoided.
When discussing risk factors within police work, the attention is usually just on the police men and women with the employers and companies being overlooked. “It is noteworthy that police officers generally do not have a careful health examination including selected laboratory tests at appropriate intervals after their recruitment, and this prevents the early identification of work-related problems,” (Magnavita et al, 2018). It is important for employers to continue examinations even after recruitment, since work-related problems can develop over time and lead to occupational stress.
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There are numerous risk factors related with police and occupational stress. Stress is known to be harmful to the cardiovascular system since stress creates hyperactivity that increases circulating levels of neuro-hormonal mediators. As well, traumatic events can cause a psychological reaction known as ‘traumatic grief’. If this is unresolved, it can trigger a chronic post-traumatic stress disorder, which is common among police officers. Police officers commonly face unexpected threatening events, such as being involved in physical cases, witnessing a colleague be injured or killed, helping battered children or women, or from being a victim of violence (Magnavita et al, 2018). These experiences increase the risk of police officers feeling grief, which will intern increase the chances of them being challenged with other risk factors. Individual level risk factors may include a person’s genetic predisposition to addiction or exposure to alcohol prenatally. This may influence the way a police officer reacts to a traumatic experience.
Not only are these influences genetic, but they are also externally influenced and are based on lifestyle choices and environmental exposure. Allen et al defines work stress as a “disruption in individual’s psychological or/and physiological homeostasis that force them to deviate them from normal functioning in interaction with their jobs and work environment”. The cells in a body require certain amounts of necessary substances and can become very dangerous if the levels are too high or two low. When homeostasis is interrupted, the body will try to correct or worsen the problem, depending on certain influences. When cells in someone’s body do not work correctly, their homeostatic balance is disrupted which can lead to diseases such as heart disease or diabetes (1982). This is why it is an important risk factor for police officers to be aware of in their line of work.
There are many other variables associated with occupational stress, for instance, perceptions of psychosocial risk factors in the workplace or burnout. Psychosocial risk factors are the perception of not having control over tasks, having excessive work demands, not having organizational support, and having few rewards. Police officers who feel more stressed out due to psychosocial risk factors, are likely to end up with worse health. An example of this is having a lack of resources in moments of pressure, such as lack of time and human or material resources (Talavera et al, 2018). This leads to taking dangerous short cuts in the workplace or not seeking out external resources when necessary, like receiving therapy or counselling.
Burnout is when chronic work stress makes it difficult to be able to perform their work or maintain their relationships. It is a psychological syndrome that leads to emotional exhaustion, depersonalization, and feeling a lack of personal accomplishment (Talavera et al, 2018). Police officers may be at risk for burnout due to having to be available 24 hours a day and from working shift work. Shift work is known to disrupt and reduce the quality of sleep, which may also increase the risk of experiencing burnout and stress.
Examples of stressful management characteristics associated with policing include bureaucratic department organizational structures, poor communication among divisions, lack of diversity, uncertainties regarding policies and procedures, lack of opportunity for advancement, poor supervision, and various job or task factors, such as workload. One of the most stressful experiences in policing is the death or injury of another police officer in line of duty. Other stressful incidents include hostage crisis, arrest of a violent perpetrator, or being investigated by internal affairs division (Gershon et al, 2002). Without proper coping mechanisms, these factors can lead to maladaptive outcomes.
Since working as a police officer can be physically and emotionally demanding, officers use different coping methods to deal with stressors. Coping is a cognitive and behavioural approach to manage stress, which can create either negative or positive results. Coping is a process that unfolds over time since the individual needs to assess the situation to determine whether it will have an influence on their well being and to what extent. Individuals change their judgements over time based on the assessment of available coping resources. These coping methods can become maladaptive when someone’s actions are not providing appropriate adjustments to the environment or situation (Wassermann, Meiring & Becker, 2019).
Maladaptive coping responses include acceptance, focusing on and venting emotion, denial, mental disengagement, behavioral disengagement, drug use, and inappropriate humor. Distancing, avoidance and self-control coping does not work in the police situation and significantly increased distress. Alcohol dependency and abuse has long been perceived as a problem among police officers. As indicated by a number of studies, many law enforcement officers consume alcohol as a way to cope with the daily stressors and tensions formed by their work. Another study examined by Chae and Boyle found that officers who consumed fourteen or more alcoholic drinks a week were at increased risk of suicidal ideation (2013).
Pienaar et al. (2007) found that suicide ideation in the South African police service was related to occupational stress, coping strategies, and personality traits. The results showed that police officers at risk for developing suicide ideation had lower levels of approach coping, turning to religion, emotional stability, and conscientiousness and higher levels of avoidance coping. Job demands were understandably higher in the high suicide ideation group than those in the low suicide ideation group. (Singh, 2017).
Some occupations are more prone to suicide than others, such as police officers. Occupational strains can increase psychological risk factors such as isolation, burnout, or exposure to traumatic events. Police officers are required to respond to situations swiftly and with certainty, putting the safety of society before themselves. These expectations increase the risk for substance abuse issues, family and marital conflicts, and mental illnesses. The avoidance mentality is often used by police officers, which leads to heavy drinking, initiating physical altercations, and engaging in aggressive behavior (Courts & Mosiniak, 2015).
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Many media outlets have pointed fingers at Ontario specifically for not doing a good job addressing the bullying, sexual and verbal harassment and corruption within their ranks. It is known that nine police officers in Ontario committed suicide in 2018 alone, and there is speculation that the number should be higher (Toronto Star, 2019). The media focuses mainly on the mistakes police officers make or those who rebel against them. Not enough light is shed on the struggles police officers experience on a daily basis.
Another maladaptive outcome is compassion fatigue. Compassion fatigue is a condition where there is a gradual lessening of compassion overtime and can be experience by anyone who assists in a helping manner. A study done by Papazoglou et al indicated that ten percent of police officers had high levels of compassion fatigue and 40 percent revealed low levels of compassion satisfaction. In addition, compassion fatigue was found to be negatively correlated with compassion satisfaction, whereas negative personality traits, such as machiavellianism, narcissism or psychopathy, were positively correlated with compassion fatigue. Furthermore, negative personality traits were negatively correlated with compassion satisfaction (2019).
It is found that in general, worker participation, open communication between labor and management, and a learning approach to stress are keys to preventing stress at work. Adaptive coping style includes three coping strategies i.e., use of instrumental support, use of emotional support, and religion. Table 3 denotes that different groups of police personnel varied on different coping strategies. (Singh, 2017). Developing adaptive coping strategies require more work than maladaptive coping strategies, but in the long term, they benefit positively with managing stress and are not likely to have the negative outcomes that maladaptive coping strategies do. Adaptive coping strategies could be things as simple as having a healthy diet and getting regular exercise. “Police officers are often the first point of contact for people in distress and are often exposed to large-scale trauma in their daily work. In an effort to protect and maintain the psychological well-being of police officers, the SAPS has created numerous units to assist police officers in coping with their job. For example, Psychological Services, Chaplain Services, and Social Service all represent the helping services of the SAPS” (Wassermann, Meiring & Becker, 2019).
Five helpful attributes for successful performance as a police officer are emotional restraint, emotional expressiveness, group cohesiveness, independent style, and realistic orientation. Compared to other professions, police officers score relatively low on emotional exhaustion, relatively high on depersonalization, and average on personal accomplishment. (Singh, 2017).
Protective factors are conditions or attributes such as skills, strengths, resources, supports or coping strategies, in individuals, families, communities or the larger society that help people deal more effectively with stressful events and also help eliminate risk in families and communities. Developing protective factors can be beneficial in a police role as it can help reduce the impact of risk factors. Studies have shown that protective factors and preventative measures had stress-buffering effects which decreased the impact of police stressors. Some examples are law enforcement agencies that implement programs that assist police in developing active coping styles, identify and access available social support systems, as well as utilize community-based services may decrease risk for suicidal ideation. Several research studies also suggest that stressors may be mediated by preventative factors that promote resilience, such as social support, family connectedness, and friendship networks in the community.
There are four different systemic levels of protective factors in law enforcement. They are individual, marriage and family, community and organization, and the cultural level. Individual level protective factors might include positive self-image, self-control, or social competence. Marriage and family create protective factors because they provide social support and comfort, where as community and organizations give a sense of belonging. The cultural level consists of cultural ideology, political context, values, media as well as belief systems. Cultural ideology and socialization processes can shape how individuals from different demographic groups are perceived by society and how they, in turn, perceive themselves. Historically, cultural ideology has shaped perceptions of gender roles, socio-economic status, as well as perceptions associated with age. Some research has identified protective factors linked to these sociocultural variables (Chae & Boyle, 2013).
Age may serve as a protective factor because older officers between the ages of 45 and 65 were at the lowest risk for harmful drinking behavior and suicidal ideation, compared to their younger colleagues. In a study with 233 police officers, it was found that older officers were more likely to report fewer stressors and score higher on job-related self-efficacy. There was also a relationship between age and shift work found, where the more elderly the officer was, the greater percentage they were on only day shifts, which is also better for one’s physical and emotional health. Research studies have also suggested that gender may serve as a protective factor. It was found that the rate of suicide among male officers was similar to other men in the larger population. However, female officers were four times more likely to commit suicide compared to women in general. With regard to alcohol consumption, female officers were significantly less likely to drink alcoholic beverages compared to their male colleagues who drank more heavily and male police officers were significantly more likely to use alcohol to cope with stress compared to female officers. Drinking among male police officers was a way to bond with other male cops. This was suggested because the police workforce is predominantly male, female officers often feel excluded from social functions and as a result may not experience pressure to drink. When dealing with police-related stressors, women were more likely to turn to religious and spiritual guidance and social support from family and friends compared to male officers (Chae & Boyle, 2013).
Police officers experience one of the most stressful occupational roles. Because of this stress, they face endless risk factors which can lead to maladaptive or adaptive outcomes. Further research is needed to develop stronger coping strategies to keep our police officers healthy and safe. The most common prevention strategy currently being utilized within the United States is the administration of psychological tests issued to police applicants. The results of the test can be used to screen out applicants who may have trouble coping with stress (Courts & Mosiniak, 2015). This is very beneficial as it disqualifies those who cannot deal with stress, which is unavoidable in that line of work. As it is impossible to avoid stress as a police officer, “it is recommended that interventions such as emotional competence training be used to reinforce and refresh positive coping strategies to enhance the emotional well-being of police officers” (Wassermann, Meiring & Becker, 2019). The pressure of law enforcement create countless emotional, physical and psychological risks for police officers. It is up to us as a community and as a country to research and develop better methods to help protect those who risk their lives protecting us everyday.
- Allen RD, Hitt MA, Green CR (1982) Occupational stress and perceived organizational effectiveness in formal groups. An examination of stress level and stress lyke. Pers Psychol 35:359–370
- Chae, M. H., & Boyle, D. J. (2013). Police suicide: Prevalence, risk, and protective factors. Policing: An International Journal of Police Strategies & Management, 36(1), 91-118. doi:10.1108/13639511311302498
- Courts, L., & Mosiniak, S. (2015). Police officers and suicide: An international literature review. Law Enforcement Executive Forum, 15(4) doi:10.19151/LEEF.2015.1504g
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- Ontario needs to take action now to prevent more police suicides (2019). Toronto: Toronto Star Syndication Services, a Division of Toronto Star Newspapers Limited.
- Papazoglou, K., Koskelainen, M., & Stuewe, N. (2019). Examining the relationship between personality traits, compassion satisfaction, and compassion fatigue among police officers. SAGE Open, 9(1), 215824401882519. doi:10.1177/2158244018825190
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- Wassermann, A., Meiring, D., & Becker, J. R. (2019). Stress and coping of police officers in the south african police service. South African Journal of Psychology, 49(1), 97-108. doi:10.1177/0081246318763059
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