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Leadership strategies to reduce officer stress

What can leaders, managers and supervisors within a law enforcement agency do to mitigate work-related stress experienced by officers?


In this July 8, 2016, file photo, a Dallas police officer, who did not want to be identified, takes a moment as she guards an intersection in the early morning after a shooting in downtown Dallas.

AP Photo/LM Otero, File

By Damon Simmons, PhD, C.S.M.C.

As the landscape of law enforcement evolves, so do the men and women who lead, supervise and manage agencies. One thing that remains constant is that law enforcement is regarded as one of our nation’s most stressful occupations.

Work-related stress, overall, has a devastating impact on our economy and our health:

  • Researchers estimate that companies in the United States lose approximately $300 billion annually because of work-related stress issues.
  • Half of American workers feel they need assistance in managing work-related stress.
  • Health issues prompted by work-related stress cost U.S. businesses an estimated $68 billion and cause a 10 percent decline in profits annually.
  • $700M is spent annually by organizations in the United States to hire and train new employees to replace those aged 45-65 who die of cardiac-related disease.
  • Approximately 1 million American workers are absent from work each day because of work-related stress issues, equating to approximately 550 million days per year of employee stress-related absences.
  • Forty percent of job turnover is a product of work-related stress.
  • Ten of the world’s leading causes of death, to include cardiovascular disease (which is the leading cause of death for men and women), are linked to work-related stress.

Causes of officer stress

In a recent study I conducted, I found that law enforcement officer stressors can be divided into three categories:

  • Operational stress (e.g., exposure to traumatic events, shift work and work-related injuries);
  • Organizational stress (e.g., bureaucratic hurdles, administrative battles and career ambitions);
  • Personal stress.

The operational and organizational stresses officers experience can reach beyond that of each officer, the uniform and the organization. People who have relationships with officers, especially intimate relationships, often experience the byproduct of an officer experience with work-related stress.

Work-related stress experienced by officers is linked to posttraumatic stress symptomology, anxiety and depression. High levels of anxiety and depression in law enforcement officers and exposure to hazardous situations are linked to high levels of alcohol use among law enforcement officers. Stress is also linked to a higher tendency to develop illnesses that are a result of deficiencies in the immune system and the development of sleep disorders in officers. A decrease in commitment to their assigned duties and attitude toward their colleagues is linked to occupational and organizational stress. Intimate partner violence or domestic violence has also been linked to operational and organizational stress.

What can the leaders, managers and supervisors within a law enforcement agency do to mitigate the work-related stress experienced by officers within their agency? This battle must be fought in three essential areas:

  • Organizational structure: How labor is divided and managed within an organization.
  • Organizational context: The social and environmental background of an organization.
  • Organizational control: The direction and control of tasks in an agency.

Through these three areas listed above, leaders have the ability and opportunity to establish and promote supportive work environments that reduce stress experienced by officers. Below are a few suggestions related to each of the three areas that may help police leaders reduce stress experienced by officers:

1. Organizational structure: How labor is divided and managed within an organization.

  • Researchers have found that 10-hour shifts are most beneficial for officers. Officers working 10-hour shifts get more quality sleep, experience less fatigue and report higher overall work satisfaction. Officers working eight-hour shifts report less sleep in a 24-hour period and work more overtime. Officers working 12-hour shifts are less likely to perform self-initiated tasks.
  • Researchers have shown that pairing officers with a partner with similar personalities reduces job dissatisfaction and increases job performance.
  • Emphasize monotasking! Multitasking is a myth. Humans are not effective or efficient parallel processors. Neuroscience researchers indicate that multitasking doubles the amount of time to complete a task and doubles the number of mistakes made while completing the task.
  • Promote employee assistance programs (EAPs).
  • Hire new officers based on individual background, coping abilities and education levels. Hiring new officers in this manner could provide your agency with individuals better suited to deal with stress.

2. Organizational context: The social and environmental background of an organization.

  • Research has shown that officers who have a good working relationship with administration experience less stress.
  • Relationships between administrators and law enforcement bargaining units are also important.
  • Leaders can implement exercise and stress-reduction programs.
  • Leaders can use anonymous stress surveys to identify sources of stress in the workplace.
  • Leaders can take efforts to increase job meaningfulness.
  • Lead by example, practicing self-care. If employees observe their leadership engage in wellness activities, such as staying physically fit to reduce stress, they are more inclined to participate in wellness activities.
  • Show gratitude and practice empathy and compassion.
  • Make wellness convenient by offering healthy meal and snack options at your agency.
  • Train employees to deal with chaos.
  • Focus on employee personal growth and development to promote creativity and increase productivity.
  • Practice mindfulness, which can create mental habits that promote resilience and productivity.
  • Include both officers and their families when developing stress-related policies, procedures and training.
  • Understand the importance of race and gender when establishing policies and training. Researchers have shown that African American officers feel their job performance is viewed more critically. Researchers have also shown that male officers feel they must maintain masculine personas, while female officers feel that the male officers do not want them on a traditionally male-dominated job.

3. Organizational control: The direction and control of tasks in an agency.

  • From a leadership perspective, middle managers hold the key to changing the workplace culture that supports wellbeing and reduces workplace stress, as employees most frequently see and communicate with middle managers.

Stress has an immense psychological and physiological effect on officers, their families and their friends, not to mention a devastating financial and operational effect on law enforcement agencies. Effective leadership, supervision and management are essential in preserving the well-being of every officer within a law enforcement agency.

About the author
Damon Simmons is currently a patrol sergeant with the Spokane County Sheriff’s Office (WA). He holds a Bachelor of Science degree in Sociology from the University of Great Falls, a Master of Science Degree from the University of Phoenix, and a Doctor of Philosophy Degree in Criminal Justice from Walden University. Damon owns and operates LEO Firstline, L.L.C., a company offering stress management education and training for law enforcement agencies, as well as the public.