Trending Topics

How to move police wellness programs on paper into practice

Does your PD have a gym but no policy that OKs on-duty workouts? Have you green-lit visits with counselors, but have nowhere for your officers to meet them privately?


Photo/Getty Images

Wellness has been a hot topic in the corporate space for many years. It’s common knowledge that a healthy, happy worker is a better, more productive worker. Fortunately, discussions and efforts toward better police wellness initiatives are becoming increasingly common. We can extrapolate this necessity for robust wellness efforts for first responders because the work is demanding and straining – physically, mentally and emotionally.

Fitness incentives, mental health services, gyms to use on-duty and peer support are some of the resources and assets that are more prevalent. But does having those programs mean an agency is well? What good is a free, confidential counselor if no one calls them? What good is a kettlebell in the corner if no one picks it up?

Numerous factors and obstacles exist, but these issues can be simplified into three categories: Stigma, logistics and mission focus.

By addressing it through the vein of fostering a culture of wellness, you can destroy those hurdles to create a team and department that is truly well.

Breaking down 3 commonly faced obstacles for LE

Stigma: There are many examples of inspirational, trailblazing work that has and continues to occur in this space. Our main block to recognizing the power of healthy practices and building more wellness for ourselves and our people is our own minds. Our impressions, judgements and perceptions often get in the way of progress.

First responders recognize the power of visible leadership: leading from the front. When key figures of influence – both formal and informal leaders – are embracing the practice, they are building the practice. When they partake and share their personal benefits, they are establishing the actions as a pillar of your organizational culture. This can be established through indirect and officialized ways, such as:

  • Indirect ways to demonstrate wellness culture: When new officers see command staff in the department gym, they are being signaled that not only is that practice OK, but it is highlighted for mirroring. When the senior squad member talks about how positive his experience was using the department-sponsored mental health counselor, that galvanizes the legitimacy of the program. When the union board rep echoes that she wishes she had taken more time early in her career to schedule financial touch-bases regarding retirement, and prods her peers to do the same, it underlines the value of financial wellness.
  • Official ways to enhance wellness culture: Having a gym in the station is one thing. Identifying, training, and even providing monetary bonuses to peer trainers and coaches is another. In such an example, you have select individuals who have tangible elevated status for being advocates for fostering fitness and health in themselves and others.

    When or how do we track performance in officers? Routine evaluation periods? If we want to make wellness a structural part of our organizations, there is no better way to demonstrate that by evaluating people upon it. It does not mean you have to be the biggest gym rat or a peer support member. It could be as simple as requiring officers and supervisors to visit what they are doing for wellness (in various veins) for themselves and their team.

Further, as Dr. Cameron Sepah has detailed, your company culture is defined by who you hire, fire and promote. By hiring officers who care about their health and that of others, you are effectively establishing that desired culture from the beginning.

Again, this can and should extend far past diet and exercise. Hire the people who make positive choices for themselves, their family and their community. Hire the people who seem grounded and want to be part of something greater – those with track records of building up others rather than tearing them down in toxicity.

The most significant way you can formally signal what you want your officers to be about is through promotion. By making wellness (however your department conceptualizes and defines it) a priority, you are making a statement.

Our future leaders need to make this a priority for themselves and their people. Assessors may ask sergeant candidates exactly that: “Tell me about a time you directed or facilitated an event that exemplifies our culture of wellness.” The people who are leading the way your agency wants will shine undeniably.

In these approaches, you are setting up your organization from the bottom up, as well as the top down.

Logistics: Does your department have a gym, but no policy or command message that authorizes working out on duty? Or does it have the opposite – a policy but no gym? Both prove to be logistical issues and antiquated circumstances that halt officer health and wellness.

Have you green-lit mental health visits with a counselor, but have nowhere for the officer to meet them (in person or remotely) in privacy? We need to ensure we are providing the necessary tools or facilities to accomplish the goal.

Understaffed departments are more the rule than the exception. This means that even when you have the beneficial tools in place (on-site gym, policy that allows officers to exercise on duty) it does not mean officers have the time (rather, perception of time).

This becomes a chicken-and-egg type of dilemma when it comes to burnout. If cops are so busy they can’t access a workout or mental health check-in, then they will be more likely to burn out. If there was simply more time (fewer calls, pace, etc.), then perhaps we would not be having this issue.

Mission focus: In the end, you have to rip off the Band-Aid. Your organization needs to determine its true goals and priorities. They may need to be ranked. If handling all calls as fast as possible is the goal, then wellness will take a back seat – so far back no one can see it.

If wellness comes before addressing calls of service completely, we can certainly recognize we are failing at our core mission. However, finding the space where wellness exists amidst time-sensitive crimes, violent situations and “cold” calls/cases, perhaps we will make traction.

It is always difficult to schedule meetings, especially for the busy patrol officer. However, if we make the mental health visit part of the regularly scheduled quarterly training, we can ensure logistical ease and even adherence.

Identifying the “why” of wellness as it pertains directly to or fits directly into the mission will help leaders of all levels with conceptualizing implementation effectively. It may feel tenuous, but that’s the point. Back the corporate methodology; it didn’t come out of some good vibe or altruistic ideology. Simply, they found with unequivocal data that taking care of your people (your workforce) simply gets more work done.


Health resources reduce stress and burnout. They lead to less sick leave usage. It is fair to multiply the necessity and efficacy considering the work that police officers do with regard to emergency work, like violence, trauma, hyper-vigilance and the emotional toll.

With staffing levels being what they are, it should be undeniable that our people are our most valuable resource. Let’s make sure we do the routine maintenance to optimize them for their families and the community, ensuring they run ideally and don’t redline.

By focusing on the concept of wellness through the lens of culture adaptation and implementation, we can identify specific methods to highlight, develop and optimize officer wellness.

NEXT: 5 ways a Texas PD is ensuring their responders are mentally and physically fit from recruits to retirees

Commander Eric Tung has been a police officer for 16 years in Washington State. He currently oversees patrol operations and his department’s wellness and peer support programs. He has led and innovated recruiting, hiring, training, community engagement, civil disturbance and field training programs. Eric was a 2022 “40 Under 40" honoree, recognized by the International Association of Chiefs of Police. He develops wellness and leadership content on @bluegritwellness on Instagram, and the Blue Grit Radio podcast.