Stress is a common factor in contemporary society, but the way in which it manifests is dependent on a number of different lifestyle factors for each individual. Exam stress is common amongst school and university students, deadline stress can affect employees with targets to meet, and medical professionals can sometimes feel the strain of the intricacy and vital nature of their occupations.
It can be argued that the highest levels of stress are reserved for those people who assume the role of authority figures, in this case members of the police force. When you factor in the dangers that some police officers face, together with the administrative burden and the pressures of protecting the public, it is easy to see how stress has become a common problem.
Sources of Police Stress
Constant exposure to people suffering distress and pain
The very nature of a police officer’s job is to become deeply involved in the lives of those who have either committed a crime or been the victim of a crime. On both ends of this spectrum it is likely that the individuals involved are suffering in one way or another. Spending most of the day working with people who are experiencing high levels of distress is bound to affect one’s own emotional state. The unfortunate fact is that police officers spend an above average amount of time around pain, suffering and sadness.
Threats to an officer’s safety or health
Many police officers, and particularly those working in poorer neighborhoods or those with higher crime rates, experience physical danger on an almost daily basis. The constant possibility of being injured or worse by criminals is something that can weigh heavily on the mind of a police officer and cause a great deal of stress.
The responsibility of protecting the lives of citizens
Whilst police officers may seem like bastions of strength and stability to members of the public, the responsibility of being our first line of defense is not one that can be taken lightly. The stress of this responsibility can sometimes amount to too much for some members of the police force. Wanting to protect people is a noble goal, but shouldering that responsibility can be a source of great strain to some.
Having to be in control of emotions even when provoked
Stoicism and the ability not to rise to provocation are just two of the many emotional skills that police officers must employ on a regular basis. Often coming into contact with hostile and inflammatory individuals, police officers have to repress and restrain a number of natural emotional responses that might occur in these situations. The continual effort to smother these emotional responses can be very stressful in the long term.
The inconclusive nature of police work
Whilst many investigations are opened and closed in a satisfying manner, an unfortunate number of police cases are left unfinished or with insufficient evidence to continue. This can be a cause of great disappointment to the officers that have put so many working hours into a particular case, and many law enforcement officials find it difficult to move on from emotional cases.
The quickly alternative pace of the job
A large portion of police work revolves around paperwork and desk protocol, but police officers must also be alert and ready to enter into dangerous scenarios at just a moment’s notice. These switches from mundane desk work to faster paced police work never fully allow their minds to be at rest, and have been highlighted as a source of stress for police officers.
The responsibility of owning a firearm or weapon
The responsibility of owning a gun or other harmful weapon can be something that weighs heavily on the minds of active police officers. It is not uncommon for police officers experiencing high levels of stress to cite the thought of keeping a weapon within their family home as a contributing factor. The constant worry that their children might find and misuse it is often the primary concern. Some officers have also remarked that they feel bouts of anxiety and stress when without their firearms, having grown to depend on the security that having a weapon close by can give them.
The Prevalence of Stress among Police
Now we’ve gone through many of the sources of stress for law enforcement officers, what do we know about the actual prevalence of stress in their careers?
There has been an increasing level of awareness in the industry regarding the stress that officers are required to manage. A number of detailed studies have helped to quantify the prevalence of police officer stress issues. A recent study entitled ‘Stress in Police Officers: A Study of the Origins, Prevalence and Severity of stress-related symptoms within a County Police Force’ reached a number of important conclusions:
- Of all of the police officers that responded to the survey, a total of 41% scored highly in the detection of stress and stress factors with regards to their jobs.
- The key contributing factors that were repeatedly cited were not actually factors specific to the act of policing like danger or self imposed responsibility complexes. Instead, survey-takers offered reasons including lack of organization, lack of communication and consultation, inadequate support when faced with a large workload, and the demands of such work overflowing in to one’s home life as main contributors to feelings of stress.
- Those survey-takers who scored highly when responding to occupational stressors, also scored equally as high on the personal stressor questions. This suggests that those who were suffering from stress at work are generally more stress-prone. However, this does not fully account for the incredibly high stress levels seen among police officers.
- The survey found a significant association between poor mental health, high levels of stress and gender. It was found that females working within the police force were far more likely to score highly on stress indicators than their male counterparts. This can be linked back to the issue of female police officers and the question of whether they are put under more stress when acting as an authority figure. This is particularly important in what is still a relatively patriarchal work environment.
The Difference Between Stress and Trauma
When considering stress and mental health issues within the police force, it is vital to learn and be aware of the distinction between stress and trauma. There are a number of adjectives that we can use for an individual who is under some form of stress, and learning the differences between them help us to avoid misdiagnosis and of those who may be suffering.
Stress is a natural response that can occur in absolutely any occupation and at absolutely any age. It can arise at any point during a person’s day, from being stuck in traffic to simply doing household chores, and it is almost inescapable in the moment. Stress happens to a person at varying levels, and some low-level stress can actually be a positive thing.
Eustress, meaning ‘good stress’ is a type of stress that arises from preparation for a sporting event or the planning of a big event. It is the kind of stress that spurs a person on to further achievement. Bad stress, on the other hand, can arise from negative experiences in the work place or at home, evoking a sense of foreboding and hopelessness in association with certain activities or places. Negative stress can be managed through a number of different methods. These include diet, exercise, mind-body techniques and much more.
The experience termed as trauma holds very little resemblance to stress, yet the two words are continually grouped together with the thought that they represent the same symptoms and causes. Unlike stress, a regime of diet change, exercise or lifestyle change cannot help a person recover from an incident of emotional trauma. Trauma that causes problems like Post Traumatic Stress Disorder is not a matter of something playing on one’s mind. Real damage is done to the brain in these instances. Unlike most other forms of stress, trauma can lead to serious conclusions like suicide. Whereas stress can be termed as build-up of smaller factors, trauma relates to a critical incident or set of incidents that are large enough to have a significant and immediate impact on an individual.
Stress and trauma are related in the ways that they affect a person emotionally, but differ in the ways they manifest and occur. When talking about stress, think about an amalgamation of not getting on with a superior, your patrol car not being serviced, having to work overtime and being denied holiday dates. These are things that can be rectified through proper channels that will hopefully relieve the feelings of stress in a natural way. Trauma, on the other hand, is when a police officer’s partner is shot during a raid or hit and killed by a getaway driver. These are events that cannot be eradicated by professional procedure and need more dedicated mental health support.
Both stress and trauma are everyday occurrences within the police force. The better educated that people are about the difference between the two, the more effectively the issues surrounding them can be resolved. The important thing to remember is that stress happens, whereas trauma happens to you.
Symptoms of Police Stress
Working in an occupation that poses such a high risk of stress-related problems, individuals that work in the police force can show a number of varied and differing physical symptoms, as well as behavioral changes. These symptoms include but are not limited to:
The profession of a police officer can often involve long hours. This will naturally cause tiredness, but fatigue is also one of the classic signs of a stress-related condition. When the mind experiences something it deems to be a stressful event, the body enters into a ‘fight or flight’ response. This involves the release of adrenaline and cortisol, an increase in heart rate, plus changes in muscle tension and blood vessel constriction. Over time, repeated stressful situations can lead to adrenal exhaustion and long term fatigue.
Insomnia and Restlessness
The continue effects of stress on the body can cause changes to sleeping patterns. As the body continually reacts to stressful situations, the natural daily cortisol cycle can be disrupted. In a job that requires as much alertness and concentration as that of a police officer, getting satisfactory rest is vital for both physical and emotional well-being. Restlessness and insomnia can develop into a vicious cycle, leaving an individual never fully rested and never able to relax and recharge.
Lowered sex drive
A loss of libido and sexual desire is often be linked to periods of chronic stress, and the private lives of police officers can sometimes suffer as a result. Continuous exposure to stressful situations can lead to a long term lowering in sex hormone levels.
Drinking too much
It is a cultural tendency and tradition to have a glass of wine or beer at the end of the working day to help you unwind and relax. In stressful jobs like law enforcement, this can quickly develop into a more serious habit. An unintended dependence on alcohol can only further damage an individual’s wellbeing.
Stress Management for Police Officers
Stress is by no means permanent, and it can be managed or reduced through a number of effective methods. Stress can be tackled both on a personal level and at an organizational level.
Personal Stress Management
- Try to avoid using alcohol, nicotine and caffeine as coping mechanisms in an attempt to ease the stress. The effects that these substances have on the body will not help to reduce the symptoms but ultimately contribute to them.
- Engaging in an all round healthier lifestyle is a good way to begin reducing stress. A better diet and more exercise will improve the resilience of your body and mind to stressful situations.
- Do not be afraid to say no. A high pressure job such law enforcement often involves employees taking on an even higher workload than their brief states. The fear of letting somebody down or disappointing can lead to people taking on way too much all at once. Knowing your limits and not being afraid to turn down potentially stress-inducing extra tasks is vital to maintaining a healthy balance.
- Pick your battles. Try to avoid any unnecessary conflict both at home and in the work environment. Rather than trying to win unwinnable arguments, seek a solution that is amiable for both parties and move on with your day. Wasting precious energy on trivial matters is bound to cause unneeded stress.
Organizational Stress Management
- A better allocation of financial resources within the police department can often go a long way to easing the working stresses of some employees. More funding in deprived sectors can ease workloads and make the working environment a more relaxed and enjoyable place to be, therefore reducing stress levels.
- Department leaders should produce a written plan detailing their efforts to manage workplace stress. This plan, even if all changes are not effected immediately, will show stressed officers that improvements in their work environment are forthcoming.
- Upgrading the resources and facilities of police training academies will help to ease new recruits into the real world of policing. A sense of continuity and familiarity will help to make the transition as easy and seamless as possible, meaning that stress levels for the new generation of police officers will be lower from day one.
- Employ a “person-job-fit-analysis” for each new recruit that will match each officer’s capabilities with the specific requirements of jobs within the department. Not all officers have the same mentality and personality. Finding a post that suits their personality will help to eradicate any work-based stress that they may encounter.