Put your mask on first: Prioritizing self-care for law enforcement executives

At a time when so much is expected of police leaders, taking care of yourself is likely to be very low on your priority list

This article originally appeared in the December 2020 Police1 Leadership Briefing. To read the full briefing, visit Self-care for leaders | An unexpected 'thanks' | Wellness consultations, and add the Leadership Briefing to your subscriptions.

By Chief Debora Black

2020 has produced indisputable evidence of the perils facing law enforcement in the United States and around the world. A global pandemic has taken more than 300,000 lives in the United States including more than 200 deaths of those serving in law enforcement and corrections services. Adding to that toll are stressors created by natural disasters, peaceful protests, civil unrest, riots and ambush attacks on officers.

The pressures on law enforcement agencies and the remarkable men and women who lead them have never been greater, and the list of those leaving their agencies, not of their own volition or timing, continues to grow. As a member of this small group of stalwart leaders, I wonder, when was the last time someone asked, “How you are doing? Chief, who has your back?”

The overused but appropriate metaphor of putting your mask on first before helping others resonates in this time of extreme challenge.
The overused but appropriate metaphor of putting your mask on first before helping others resonates in this time of extreme challenge. (Getty Images)

What does your self-care look like?

At a time when so much is expected of law enforcement leadership – from the community, your agency, elected officials and the media – taking care of yourself is likely to be very low on your priority list. With so many demands for your time and attention, what does your self-care even look like?

While you may be able to recognize the impacts of anxiety and distress in others, can you recognize when the same stressors have pulled you off balance? And are you willing to take the necessary steps to restore equilibrium and invest in your physical, mental and emotional health?

Components of a self-care regimen

Any self-care regimen requires healthy nutrition, sufficient hydration, regular exercise and quality sleep. While interrelated, sleep deprivation can be most damaging to emotional, physical and cognitive health. Improving one’s sleep quality will also serve as a catalyst for other areas of self-care due to positive effects on concentration, motivation and mood.

Avoiding a diet high in fat, sugar and saturated fats, remaining hydrated and committing to an exercise routine will improve your ability to manage stress and improve cognitive functioning in the short term, while also having long-term benefits of reduced risk of cardiovascular disease, hypertension, and type 2 diabetes.

Although alcohol is often used as a stress reliever for many individuals, it may indicate that your other coping mechanisms aren’t sufficient. On the other end of the spectrum, overreliance on caffeine to fight fatigue or achieve alertness may work in the short term but is a poor substitute for high-quality sleep.

Much has been written about the positive benefits of meditation, relaxation and breathing techniques as a daily practice or to calm overwhelming emotions in the moment. Incorporating mindfulness into your day can produce immediate improvements to your emotional, mental and physical health.

Identifying stressors

The volume and magnitude of stressors law enforcement executives are facing in 2020 are unprecedented; the condition is aggravated by the sense that many of these events are out of our ability to influence or control. Normal reactions to events can be overwhelming and powerful, but as leaders, such emotions are often contained, sometimes even repressed. Bottled-up emotions rarely remain so, and, over time may lead to serious emotional imbalance.

The current environment poses a threat to exacerbate two characteristics common to individuals in our profession: perfectionism and overidentification of one’s role.

In the positive sense, perfectionism involves setting high (yet achievable) personal standards, a preference for order and organization, a sense of self-satisfaction, a desire to excel and a motivation to achieve positive rewards.

Maladaptive perfectionism, however, involves harmful qualities of unrealistically high standards, intense ruminative concerns over mistakes, perceived pressure from others to be perfect and compulsive doubt. Overidentification of one’s role is a byproduct of maladaptive perfectionism, which can be damaging to relationships both inside and outside of the workplace.

Overidentification with your role as police chief, sheriff, or director can lead to under-identification with the other important life roles you may have of being a parent, spouse/partner and/or friend. Those close to you are often exposed to the same anxieties, fears and disequilibrium as you, along with the added stress of feeling powerless to help. These are the people who deserve your best, not whatever is left at the end of the day.

10 ways to practice self-care

Follow these simple steps to start protecting your mental and physical health and well-being:

  • Learn self-compassion so that you can practice compassion toward others.
  • Reestablish (or identify) coping skills that have worked for you in the past.
  • For every negative emotion you experience, think of three positive emotions.
  • Connect with others to talk about anything except for work. Leave work at work.
  • Minimize your exposure to traditional news and social media.
  • Disconnect from technology whenever possible.
  • Recognize when it is time to seek professional help.
  • Foster a life outside of law enforcement – exercise, take up a hobby, socialize with family and friends, or learn a new skill.
  • Develop healthy physical habits – hiking, swimming, walking – anything to get your blood flowing.
  • Practice meditation and mindfulness. Breathe.

Put your mask on first

As law enforcement leaders, we carry the immense responsibility of protecting our folks, keeping our communities safe and leading in a way that reflects the very best of our noble profession. The overused but appropriate metaphor of putting your mask on first before helping others resonates in this time of extreme challenge. Commit to practices that help you manage stress, achieve balance and model self-care behaviors for others. Remember, when we are not feeling our best, we cannot be our best for anyone else. Don’t forget to wear your mask first.

If you are struggling, resources are available to help you, your family members and members of your agencies.

DOWNLOAD: Prioritizing mental & emotional health (eBook)

About the author

Debora Black currently serves as police chief in Prescott, Arizona. Prior to that, she was chief of police for the City of Glendale, Arizona. Chief Black has nearly 40 years of experience in law enforcement and is currently pursuing a master’s degree in clinical mental health counseling with a goal of becoming a licensed professional counselor.

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