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Law enforcement family support: Why it matters for your agency

Caring for families, reducing family stress and combining efforts with spouses who care for the officer at home can improve retention

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Addressing family wellness begins with awareness of the compounded stress facing officers: the stress experienced on the job that can translate into family stress off the job.

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This article originally appeared in the October 2022 Police1 Leadership Briefing. To read the full briefing, see Building LEO resiliency skills | Why family support matters for your agency and add the Leadership Briefing to your subscriptions.

As the law enforcement profession has made strides in recognizing the importance of mental and physical health, conversations surrounding officer wellness have increased in frequency, intentionality and openness. While many steps have been taken to address the wellness needs of law enforcement professionals, there are still key areas for improvement.

Often due to a lack of understanding and resources, many agencies have neglected family wellness — which has serious effects on the well-being of officers and even retention. Addressing family wellness begins with awareness of the compounded stress facing officers: the stress experienced on the job that can translate into family stress off the job.

But do agencies really have a role in family wellness? Should it be left to the officers and their families to deal with? Because the job affects virtually every part of an officer’s life – and by extension, the life of their family – your agency must have a stake in family health. It demonstrates an investment in the well-being of personnel. But it also impacts retention because family members are more likely to support the officer staying in the job.

In a recent Lexipol webinar, “Bringing Wellness Home: How Supporting the Family Enhances Officer Resilience and Retention,” I shared why family wellness should be a priority for departments and how leaders can begin to provide resources and support for officers, their spouses and their children.

The effects of the job

It’s no secret that police work places significant demands on the officer – stress can come from ongoing exposure to trauma and critical incidents, interrupted sleep, the physical and time demands of the job, and more. All this stress affects job performance: Officers experiencing it can suffer from a lack of focus, decreased productivity and low morale. But the off the job effects are just as significant. At home, families see their officers experiencing emotional detachment, chronic irritability, chronic fatigue and social isolation. And more often than not, the spouse and children don’t understand why their officer is experiencing these behavioral changes.

Because family members aren’t always aware of the stressors of the job and the effects it can have on the officer, they often resort to thinking, “It must be me.” This can lead to a search for answers on the internet or from others who aren’t familiar with the first responder lifestyle, resulting only in further discouragement and stress. This family stress comes back onto the officer, sometimes in the form of a spouse or partner who demands the officer choose between them and the job.

Whether they are experiencing marriage or parenting challenges at home, officers carry that stress with them to work. The effects of both work and family stress can lead to a deterioration of on-the-job performance and morale. Eventually, the officer may begin to wonder if their chosen career is worth it.

In pursuit of officer wellness

So, what can agencies do to support officers enduring stress across the board?

As a major part of officers’ lives, the family plays an integral role in wellness. Spouses can be an incredible help in supporting officer wellness as the front line of defense – spouses know their officers and can be attuned to the signs and symptoms of issues common in law enforcement such as depression, PTSD, substance abuse and critical stress. But spouses won’t notice these symptoms if they aren’t educated about what to look out for and what causes these issues. Additionally, spouses are critical in structuring and maintaining a healthy lifestyle for officers. They impact scheduling – budgeting time for workouts, doctors’ appointments or therapy – and have influence over nutrition and the choices their officer makes in day-to-day life.

Bringing spouses and family members into the equation helps to ensure the health of your officers on all fronts – including during some of the most mentally and physically challenging times for officers. Following a critical incident, who better to encourage self-care, look out for symptoms of post-traumatic stress or point their officer toward agency-provided resources? Again, agencies must take time to provide information and resources to spouses to prepare them for the unique first responder lifestyle as they support their officer in the daily struggles and the once-in-a-career incidents.

In pursuit of officer retention

Finally, it bears noting that an emphasis on holistic wellness that involves and educates officer families positively impacts retention efforts. The United States military has conducted significant research on the relationship between family wellness and retention of service members. What they discovered: When families are cared for – when they are “mission ready” – service members’ performance improves, as does their willingness to continue serving. While there are many differences between military service and law enforcement, the principle still applies. Caring for families, reducing family stress and combining efforts with spouses who care for the officer at home can improve retention.

Law enforcement agencies must begin to take responsibility for communicating with and educating the families of their officers, to encourage them to be actively involved in their wellness and that of their officer. Doing so will improve morale and retention while helping officers stay healthy and perform at the highest level.

Learn more in the on-demand webinar, “Bringing wellness home: How supporting the family enhances officer resilience and retention.”

Dr. Rachelle Zemlok is a licensed clinical psychologist in California, specializing in work with first responder families. She serves as the strategic wellness director at Lexipol, supporting the content and strategy related to first responder mental health and wellness, with a special focus on supporting spouses and family members through the Cordico Wellness App. Prior to joining Lexipol, Zemlok founded First Responder Family Psychology, which provides culturally competent therapy to first responders and their family members. She is the author of “The Firefighter Family Academy: A Guide to Educate & Prepare Spouses for the Career Ahead.” For more information on Dr. Zemlok or to connect with her please visit her website.