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How cops can manage the stress of the job at home

Taking the stress of the job home with us is inevitable, but it can be managed — and should be for the sake of our families

We all have our own way of dealing with “that” call. You know the one — it keeps replaying through your mind when you close your eyes or comes back when you drive by a certain corner. Perhaps it’s a smell that takes you right back to the scene.

Those calls change who we are — not just at work, but at home. Home is where we can see some significant issues arise from work-related stress. Some stress management methods are certainly better than others and having a plan ahead of time is what will determine your success at balancing both the job and your life.

The Problem
As law enforcement officers, we always prefer to be in control, but when we arrive at a scene that is beyond our control our stress levels are likely to increase significantly. This stress, if left unmanaged, can reach into our home lives, and this can be a huge strain on our family or friends. Your significant other, spouse, or another family member may find themselves facing the brunt of an external stressor that followed you home.

The responses to stress vary by the individual. In the immediate aftermath of a traumatic incident, you may be tense, irritable, distant, and/or numb. Over a long career, the stress may result in isolationism, lack of communication, and inability to sleep.

All of these issues can easily affect our family members and our relationships with them. Our oath to do whatever we can to protect and serve must extend to our own homes, and we must be willing to take positive steps to protect and serve our loved ones.

The Solution
The solution is truly simple. We like to be prepared for anything that might threaten our lives or the welfare of society. We train, we read, we discuss “if/then” scenarios to overcome any threat. Recognize that your family is part of the “society” that you have taken an oath to protect, and that job stress is one of those things that is a threat to them. Prepare ahead of time by training, reading, and discussing “if/then” scenarios to manage job stress and your personal life.

First, you need to have an honest discussion with your significant other and any other family members you feel it’s important to include.

Ask your family members what they want — assuming they are adults — and figure out what you want. Find a balance that works for everyone involved. It may be beneficial for you to vent and it may help them understand why you are under stress. In addition, it may give them a heads-up to watch out for any signs that you are overstressed and help you identify problems quickly so they can be managed in an appropriate manner.

Second, you must choose now — before it is needed — how you are going to manage your stress. For example, I have a long-developed habit of going to the gym to burn off stress; the more stressed I am, the harder I push at the gym.

The old cliché of the law enforcement officer who drinks too much too often is unfortunately based in reality. Find something beneficial that works for you and stick with it on a regular basis so that when you need it you can automatically fall into your habit. A good place to start is by recalling what you did with your spare time before you were in law enforcement.

Officer Survival at Home
At the beginning of every shift our number one goal is to go home, and we are most often concerned with going home physically. This is certainly a good goal to have, and I have lived with it in mind for many years. However, we must also go home mentally.

Taking the stress of the job home with us is inevitable in some cases but it can be managed — and should be for the sake of our families. Prepare now by setting healthy habits, talking with your family, and recognizing that survival at home is just as important as it is at work.

Jeff McGill has 25 years of law enforcement experience. He has an earned doctoral degree with research that focused on the perceptions of mental health and suicide amongst law enforcement recruits. Jeff is a co-founder of Blue H.E.L.P., a national nonprofit that works to reduce the stigma of mental health issues in law enforcement. He now works full time as the Director of Public Safety Training at Northwest Florida State College overseeing training for law enforcement, corrections, dispatchers, emergency medical technicians, paramedics and firefighters.