Why your off-duty life is important for stress management
Over time, if occupational stress is not properly managed, officers may experience life-threatening consequences
By Dr. Jarrod Sadulski, Faculty Member, Criminal Justice at American Military University
Law enforcement is one of the most stressful occupations in existence. Over time, if occupational stress is not properly managed, officers who are currently employed, as well as those who are retired, may experience life-threatening consequences. These consequences could be physiological, psychological, or behavioral (Patterson et al., 2014).
Police officers face many threats to both their physical safety and mental health that the general population does not. Officers are exposed to traumatic events and must regularly respond to crime scenes and domestic disputes. They also experience stress from things like leadership and management challenges as well as the difficulties associated with long hours and shift work. These different factors often contribute to officers suffering from chronic stress.
The Consequences of Unmanaged Stress
Due to the acute stress that officers experience while on-duty, combined with the chronic stress that occurs over time, officers can suffer from both physical or mental problems. Officers are at a greater risk of suffering from mental disorders. In one study, 24 percent of the officers examined reported symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), 9 percent had depression symptoms, and 19 percent reported alcohol abuse (Fox et al., 2012). Other research by Austin-Ketch et al. (2012) and June-Hee et al. (2016) found prevalence rates of PTSD among police officers at 35 percent and 41 percent respectively.
In addition to concerns involving mental health, they are at higher risk of physical problems. Police officers are at risk of developing cardiovascular disease due to high-levels of stress (Thayyil, Jayakrishnan, Raja, & Cherumanalil, 2012). They are also more likely to have higher alcohol consumption caused by exposure to work-related violence as they continue to accumulate months or years of experience in policing (Leino et al., 2011). Alcohol abuse can then lead to many additional problems for officers including isolation, psychological, physical, and personal problems (Chopko et al., 2013; Leino, Eskelinen, Summala, & Virtanen, 2011).
To promote resilience against the psychological, physiological, and behavioral problems resulting from stress, officers need to apply effective stress management strategies. Ways that officers spend their time off-duty is an important part of this.
While on-duty, officers see the worst side of society and are regularly exposed to traumatic events. The stress that this causes can be countered by engaging in activities and maintaining a lifestyle that is unrelated to policing. All officers need to deliberately work to establish a personal identity that’s distinct from their career as an officer. This enables officers to truly separate themselves from the uniform while off-duty.
To minimize the risks associated with police stress and to promote resilience from the stress experienced on-duty, officers should:
- Maintain plans and goals outside of being a police officer. This should include long-term goals following retirement and other aspirations that increase an officer’s personal satisfaction. Giving thought to the future, post-policing, is important because it requires officers to reflect on topics that are not associated with policing.
- Associate with society outside of law enforcement. It is common for police officers to congregate with other officers, even while off-duty. However, having friends outside of policing is important because it can provide insight into how people in other occupations solve problems. Having civilian friends can also help officers socialize and be part of their community in a role that is outside of law enforcement.
- Have activities outside of work that provide satisfaction. Engaging in activities outside of policing is also important in maintaining a proper work-life balance. These activities can include regular participation in things like coaching, community groups, sports teams or anything else that officers personally enjoy. These activities also provide opportunities for officers to take their mind off the stresses of policing.
- Accept the advice of senior officers who have effectively managed stress throughout their police career. Regardless of career stage, officers should take advantage of the excellent resource found in the experience and support of other officers. Take the time to have discussions with fellow officers about how they cope with stress and what works for them. This can be especially insightful if veteran officers have developed coping strategies that are unique to the stressors officers face in specific regions, within certain agencies due to politics or processes, or other factors that may be unique to that area.
Police stress is a major concern and can have serious psychological and physiological consequences if it is not properly managed. It is important that steps are taken to promote officer resiliency even while off-duty. Maintaining an identity aside from the badge enables an officer to decompress through personal interests and gives them an opportunity to gain experiences and perspectives that are not police-related. Officers should strive to maintain a network of friends outside of work who are not associated with law enforcement and can provide problem-solving strategies from the perspective of other occupations. In addition, officers should also engage in off-duty activities that promote relaxation. Lastly, officers should talk with other officers at various career stages to gain insight about coping mechanisms and what they do off-duty to mitigate the stress associated with policing.
About the author
Dr. Jarrod Sadulski is an adjunct professor with American Military University. He has spent more than two years studying police stress and its influence on the lives of police officers. Sadulski has conducted a review of approximately 300 peer-reviewed scholarly articles that focused on topics associated with police stress and officer wellness. In addition, he conducted a two-year qualitative study on how successful police officers effectively manage stress throughout their law enforcement career. Each participant in Sadulski’s study reflected upon the value of life and having an identity outside of policing as an effective stress management strategy. With a Ph.D. in Criminal Justice, he continues to research effective stress management strategies for police officers to promote resiliency. In addition, Sadulski has 20 years of policing experience between both federal and local law enforcement. Sadulski is available for speaking engagements and assisting agencies with the development of peer-support and stress management implementation programs. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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Thayyil, J., Jayakrishnan, T. T., Raja, M., & Cherumanalil, J. M. (2012). Metabolic syndrome and other cardiovascular risk factors among police officers. North American Journal of Medical Sciences,4(12), 630. doi:10.4103/1947-2714.104313