Life as a police officer is incredibly stressful. Not only do officers have to deal with dangerous and stressful situations, but they’re also often excluded from their communities. The continued popularity of social media and the stereotyping it often fuels has only increased the impact of forced isolation on police officers. Pair these stressors with the hundreds of others that can impact your officers in their work, and you have a recipe for police burnout.
The good news is you can help your officers avoid burnout by focusing on stress reduction and helping create a healthy balance for them. This will help your officers improve their physical and mental health as well as do their jobs more effectively.
Common Sources of Stress for Police Officers
Several factors make policing incredibly challenging and push people to their limits. Many officers need to be constantly alert and prepared to take action, which can compound stress over time. It is also important to remember that not all officers have the same responsibilities, and there are many potential sources of stress for your police officers.
Here are some of the most common stressors for police officers, including both directly work-related and personal sources of stress.
- Excessive overtime
- Work environment stressors
- Regular changes in scheduling and duties
- Family tensions due to work schedule
- Financial struggles
- Lack of healthy coping mechanisms
- Constant exposure to violence, suffering, and dangerous situations
- Threats to their safety
- Organizational challenges
- Alienation from the community
- Responsibility of owning a firearm
- Responsibility of protecting civilian lives
The Effects of Stress on the Mental Health of Police Officers
The unfortunate truth is that the impact of stress on police officers' physical and mental health can be devastating. Not only can excessive stress affect the work your officers can do, but it can also dramatically impact their personal lives, including their relationships with others, mental health, and outlook on life.
Here are some ways untreated stress can affect your officers:
- Reduced efficiency
- Emotional detachment
- Post-traumatic stress disorder
- Disruptions in family life
- Substance abuse
- Health problems such as heart attack or unhealthy weight gain
- Early retirement or absenteeism
- Depression and anxiety
- Misplaced anger or excessive aggression
Tips for Promoting Stress Management Among Police Officers
Ensuring your officers are functioning at peak performance is essential for their work. Often, your officers will be put into stressful situations where a clear head is crucial. Luckily, even as your officers experience stress in their lives, there are many ways you can help them cope and reduce burnout.
Identify the Stressors
The first thing that police leaders need to do to help their officers is to identify the stressors that are impacting them the most. Without knowing what is causing your officers’ stress, it’s difficult to know how best to help them. Generally speaking, you would be safe to assume that some of the common stressors listed above play some role, but other factors may be contributing as well. Talk with your officers to better understand what they are struggling with and how you can support them.
Notice Symptoms of Fatigue
Sometimes, your officers may not even notice they have been overworking themselves because they don’t know what to look for. This is significant because worker fatigue can create major problems in the police force. You can help your officers check in and notice signs of fatigue, such as
- Difficulty concentrating
- Poor memory
- Lashing out or being quick to anger
- Muscle pain
- Swollen or inflamed joints
- Apathetic or pessimistic mood
- Constant sleepiness
- Emotional exhaustion or lack of empathy
Implement and Promote Stress Management Programs
Your officers need to know you are there for them and willing to provide the support they need to manage their stress. A 2018 study illustrates the importance of working together and shifting the police culture to allow officers to comfortably seek the help they need as well as utilizing stress management programs within the department to help officers track their stress levels better.
Overtime fatigue is often the biggest factor in police burnout. Many police officers have secondary employment or off-duty jobs when they are not working at the station. This is a great way to make some extra income, but if these hours are ignored when you are scheduling overtime, it can lead to way too much wear and tear on the minds and bodies of your officers.
To help prevent officer burnout, you can use technology to automate fatigue rules as part of regular work assignments and overtime. Using scheduling software, with this type of capability ensures that officers have time to get the rest they need to do their jobs effectively.
Mitigate Long Shifts
Long shifts are tiring at any job, but for police officers, they can be especially exhausting. 12-hour shifts can lead to less employee engagement, fatigue, and increased stress in your officers. Take a look at your work schedules to ensure your officers are getting enough time to rest and recover after their shifts. Using scheduling software to limit overtime hours per pay period for example, is an effective way to control long shifts your officers work.
The Role of Law Enforcement Leaders in Reducing Officer Stress
Law enforcement leaders play a much larger role in stress reduction than you may think. Often, people think that to reduce stress, an officer needs to take up meditation or see a counselor. While these are both great methods for reducing stress in an individual, they will not do much for your officers as a whole.
Police leaders, on the other hand, can take measures that affect the entire community. Focus on three leadership essentials:
- Build relationships with your officers. Acknowledge them as real and whole human beings, not just workers to assign and reassign.
- Improve morale. Believe in your organizational mission. Make it a priority, and show your officers that you are all working toward a common goal.
- Make time. Encourage regular communication with your officers. Hold regular meetings, schedule one-on-ones, and address any problems openly and honestly.
You can help your officers deal with stress and burnout in numerous ways. Of course, the most effective methods for doing this may vary depending on your particular group of officers. Still, systemic changes, such as utilizing smart scheduling and offering stress management training, can be tremendously helpful. This is because they promote a joint effort between you, the department's leaders, and your officers, showing them that you are invested in their health, and they should be too.