Occupational stress in policing: What the research says and what leaders can do about it

Police leaders must recognize the importance of a physically and mentally healthy workforce and address occupational stress among personnel


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By Richard Segovia, Ed.D.

Police work is stressful, and law enforcement officers are indoctrinated to high levels of stress at the onset of their careers, and beyond. It is vital that officers maintain their mental wellness for their own safety and for the safety of their community. There is a direct correlation between officer wellness and public safety; police agencies and communities benefit from healthy officers. It is therefore a police leader’s duty to recognize the importance of a physically and mentally healthy workforce, and their ethical obligation to address occupational stress among staff.

To explore the effects of policing on occupational stress, this article provides a contemporary analysis of scholarly research and web sources that examine contributing factors to police occupational stress; the impact stress has on an officer, their agency and their communities; and strategies police leaders employ to mitigate workforce stressors.

The literature indicates that organizational, operational and personal factors such as work environment and external support systems contribute to or exacerbate, occupational stress.
The literature indicates that organizational, operational and personal factors such as work environment and external support systems contribute to or exacerbate, occupational stress. (Aristide Economopoulos | NJ Advance Media)

Unsurprisingly, the literature indicates that organizational, operational and personal factors such as work environment and external support systems contribute to or exacerbate, occupational stress.

Literature review

The literature and research regarding police stress are considerable, and the reviewed literature in this article offers three global perspectives on the topic. First, is a study on occupational stress from Turin, Italy, that examines stress levels and anxiety at a large metropolitan police agency. Second, scholars at the University of Toronto analyzed the effect of stress and trauma on officer wellness in British Columbia, Canada. Third, American researchers studied factors that affect stress among law enforcement officers in New York state.

Occupational stress in Italy

In an occupational medicine journal on police stress, anxiety and coping strategies,  researchers at Universita di Tornio suggest that occupational stress among law enforcement officers is related to the deterioration of their psychological health and social welfare. [1] Researchers used questionnaires and a Distress Thermometer (a rating scale used to measure stress) to capture stress data, assess stressors and evaluate the coping strategies of 617 Italian police officers. The study identified stress differences between male and female officers, with men experiencing more organizational stress and women experiencing more operational stress.

According to researchers, examples of organizational stress include long hours, changes in duties and role conflict. [2] On the other hand, operational stress might include being exposed to human suffering or violent situations. [1]

Despite the stress experienced by both genders, each exhibited effective stress coping strategies. Namely, gaining social, emotional, instrumental, and behavioral support. Other positive coping strategies include self-distraction, active coping, positive reframing, and acceptance. Researchers concluded that training and support were critical to navigating the rigors of police work and how gender, position and assignment are associated with a particular stressor.

Resiliency in British Columbia

In 2015, an article in a scholarly law enforcement journal on police resiliency analyzed the connection between training and elasticity – defined as an officer’s ability to stretch mentally and physically stretch themselves to the point before breaking – among 297 law enforcement officers in British Columbia, Canada. [3] Specifically, researchers examined how mental preparedness techniques might mitigate stressors officers face and the benefits these techniques have on officers and policy-makers. The study concluded that trauma could result from an officer's exposure to stress. Moreover, the trauma officers are susceptible to can be physically and psychologically damaging. A proactive approach to addressing potential stress is critical to mitigating physical and psychological trauma while promoting an officer’s overall well-being.

Researchers concluded that post-stress treatment is less effective than pre-stress treatment. Researchers assert that a proactive approach and investment in mental preparedness techniques are vital to longevity and stress management in policing.

Coping with stress in New York

A 2018 article studied the work-stress axis among police officers. [4] Researchers used data from 594 peace officers across 21 different New York state law enforcement agencies to study factors that affect officer stress. Specifically, researchers determined occupation stress was influenced by variables including demographics, education level, rank, tenure, internal and external factors, support systems and cumulative stress. Other factors included lack of a support system, pre susceptibility to stress and preexisting physical, mental and emotional conditions. Moreover, agencies with counseling services positively influenced how officers cope with stress, resulting in improved welfare and elasticity. Researchers concluded that officers who employ stress coping techniques are more effective in reducing and managing stress.

Media Analysis

A number of other sources offer anecdotal and data-driven evidence regarding police stress. Notably, information from web sources is considerable, and an analysis of three web-based articles from reputable professional sources offers perspective.

Healthy officers are healthy communities

A publication from the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP) on officer wellness concluded that healthy officers in healthy communities are interrelated. [5] The study showed that policies such as wellness training, fitness programs and peer support help officers adopt healthy lifestyles and mitigate occupational stress.

Stress leads to physical and mental complications

A 2008 study from the University of Buffalo suggests that pressures experienced by law enforcement officers are precursors to many physical and mental health complications, including heart disease and post-traumatic stress disorder. [6]

The online article also cites a National Institute of Justice (NIJ) study that measured officer stress. The NIJ study found that officers over 40 years old have a higher chance of experiencing cardiac issues, and the unpredictable and dangerous nature of police work is psychologically demanding to officers. Like the study in British Columbia, researchers at the University of Buffalo concluded that early intervention might assist officers in handling the stressors of policing, thereby limiting the physical and psychological damage caused by trauma.

Mental preparedness techniques help officers deal with stress by visualizing preparation measures, thereby reducing the effects of critical events and incidents.

In her article How Police Can Reduce and Manage Stress, Michelle L. Beshears, Ph.D., highlights the types and causalities of work-related and individual stressors, such as poor management, shift work and changes in duties. [7] The article discusses the consequences of stress, such as PTSD, reduced efficiency and physical health problems, while illustrating the importance of stress reduction and management strategies.

Improvement strategies

The literature on police stress indicates that occupational stress is concerning to law enforcement leaders, line-level officers and community members. Coping strategies that mitigate stressors vary depending on the programs and policies of a particular law enforcement agency. [8-10] Here are a few research-based strategies leaders can consider implementing to lessen officer stressors in the workplace:

  1. Formal fitness and wellness programs: Physical fitness decreases the risk that first responders succumb to job-related physical and mental health issues. [11] In their systematic review, MacMillan et al. determined that organizations with structured health intervention programs had better health-related results compared to organizations that do not have such programs.
  2. Implement wellness policies: Wellness and self-care policies that address social support and healthy lifestyles are critical to an effective and healthy workforce. Policies based on quantitative and qualitative studies reduce occupational risk, stress and unhealthy lifestyles among police officers [12]. Accordingly, another strategy that might mitigate stress among officers is the implementation of wellness policies throughout the law enforcement community.
  3. Incorporate family support: Family members play a critical role in stress management for police officers, and unstable family support results in work-family conflicts, which adversely affects an officer's physical and mental well-being.  Although officers are trained and equipped to handle these situations, researchers assert that familial support alleviates potential work and family-related conflicts. [13-15] It is logical for law enforcement leaders to develop policies and programs that incorporate familial support to help improve officer stress.

Conclusion

Organizational, operational, and personal factors contribute to occupational stress, and research indicates a positive correlation between improved public safety and officer wellness. Police wellness policies and programs positively impact the officer, their agency and the communities they serve. Business ethics and federal statutes suggest that employers have a moral and legal obligation to protect their employees and provide them with as safe a work environment as possible. OHSA is the guiding statute on all things workplace safety from a legal perspective. Ethically, researchers assert that business executives take workplace safety and employee health very seriously and suggest that leaders have a moral obligation to ensure the health and well-being of their workforce. [16]

Police leaders are faced with a cost conundrum: their obligation to provide a reasonably safe working environment through wellness policies, and the cost of implementing those policies. Law enforcement leaders face a choice between the financial cost or public safety cost, and there’s no straightforward answer. However, proper budgeting and outreach to philanthropies and corporations can help offset financial burdens to agencies. [13] In the end, today's police leaders must acknowledge the importance of mitigating occupational stress and establish wellness programs to help officers cope with their stressors.

References

1. Acquadro MD, Varetto A, Zedda M, Ieraci V. (2015). Occupational stress, anxiety and coping strategies in police officers. Occupational Medicine, 65(6), 466-473.

2. Cohen IM, McCormick AV, Rich B. (2019). Creating a Culture of Police Officer Wellness. Policing, 13(2), 213–229.

3. Andersen JP, Papazoglou K, Nyman M, Koskelainen M, Gustafsberg H. (2015). Fostering resilience among police.

4. Tsai LC, Nolasco C, Vaughn MS. (2018). Modeling job stress among police officers: Interplay of work environment, counseling support, and family discussion with co-workers. Police Practice and Research, 19(3).

5. Practices in Modern Policing: Officer Safety and Wellness. (2018). Retrieved from https://www.theiacp.org/sites/default/files/2018-11/IACP_PMP_SafetyandWellness.pdf

6. University at Buffalo. (2008). Impact of Stress On Police Officers' Physical And Mental Health. ScienceDaily.  

7. Beshears M. How police can reduce and manage stress. Police1. 

8. Hickman MJ, Fricas J, Strom KJ, Pope MW. (2011). Mapping Police Stress. Police Quarterly, 14(3), 227–250.

9. Burke R. (Ed.). (2017). Stress in Policing. London: Routledge.

10. Bano B, Talib P. (2017). Understanding police stress towards a secure and sustainable society. International Journal of Police Science & Management, 19(3), 159-170.

11. MacMillan F, Karamacoska D, El Masri A, McBride KA, Steiner GZ, Cook A, George ES. (2017). A systematic review of health promotion intervention studies in the police force: Study characteristics, intervention design and impacts on health. Occupational and Environmental Medicine, 74(12), 913.

12. Kuehl KS, Elliot DL, MacKinnon DP, O’Rourke HP, DeFrancesco C, Miočević M, Kuehl H. (2016). The SHIELD (safety & health improvement: Enhancing law enforcement departments) study: Mixed methods longitudinal findings. Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine, 58(5), 492-498.

13. Griffin JD, Sun IY. (2018). Do work-family conflict and resiliency mediate police stress and burnout: A study of state police officers. American Journal of Criminal Justice, 43(2), 354-370. 

14. Kinman G, McDowall A, Cropley M. (2012). Work-family conflict and job-related wellbeing in UK police officers: The role of recovery strategies. In Proceedings from Institute of Work Psychology International Conference: Work, Wellbeing and Performance, Sheffield. 

15. Ola M, Mathur R. (2016). The convergent and divergent impact of work environment, work-family conflict, and stress coping mechanisms on female and male police officers. International Journal of Education & Management Studies, 6(1), 19–24.

16. Jesper H, Huhtamäki F, Dennis S. (2022). Ruthless Exploiters or Ethical Guardians of the Workforce? Powerful CEOs and their Impact on Workplace Safety and Health: JBE. Journal of Business Ethics, 177(3), 641-663. 


About the author

Richard "Rich" Segovia is a retired law enforcement officer with 27 years of service. He worked in several areas throughout his career, including patrol operations, investigations, training, other specialized assignments. Presently, he manages special projects and performs senior-level operational, policy and training analysis work for the Texas Health and Human Services Office of the Inspector General Special Investigations Group.

As a certified law enforcement instructor in California and Texas, Rich's robust instructional experience allowed him to make recommendations to training staff and administrators regarding course creation, curriculum development, instruction, and evaluation. He developed and deployed employee training programs used in classrooms, role-playing, and on-the-job training environments on subjects related to force options, defensive tactics, and small unit operations. Rich is also a part-time academic evaluator at Western Governors University. He performs course evaluation work applying his subject matter expertise and experience utilizing approved rubrics and crafting personalized, robust feedback to support accurate scoring of student work.

Rich earned a bachelor's degree in Business Management and a master's degree in Management and Leadership from Western Governors University, a Master of Business Administration from California Coast University, and a Doctorate in Educational Leadership from Liberty University, where he is currently pursuing a second doctorate, a Ph.D. in the Advanced Educational Studies. In addition, Rich is a USA Boxing certified coach and trains in western-style boxing, Filipino Martial Arts and Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu.

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