What law enforcement leaders can learn from corporate wellness programs

We need to be committed to exploring novel approaches and agency successes to boost officer well-being


This article is based on research conducted as a part of the CA POST Command College. It is a futures study of a particular emerging issue of relevance to law enforcement. Its purpose is not to predict the future; rather, to project a variety of possible scenarios useful for planning and action in anticipation of the emerging landscape facing policing organizations.

The article was created using the futures forecasting process of Command College and its outcomes. Managing the future means influencing it – creating, constraining and adapting to emerging trends and events in a way that optimizes the opportunities and minimizes the threats of relevance to the profession.

For additional resources on officer wellness, download Smash the stigma: Building a culture that supports officer wellness

By Lieutenant Gus Jimenez

It is time for law enforcement to re-imagine wellness programs and explore new approaches to prevent career burnout and help employees deal with mental health issues. Although well-intended and sometimes effective, our current approach is not working.

According to the January 2018 Law Enforcement Mental Health and Wellness Act Report to Congress, good mental and psychological health is just as essential as good physical health for law enforcement officers. [1] This means it’s time to push police leaders to devote their energy to addressing wellness to save their officers’ lives.

Corporate America offers a great example of how holistic wellness programs can benefit employees.
Corporate America offers a great example of how holistic wellness programs can benefit employees. (Getty Images)

OFFICER WELLNESS PROGRAMS: THE BEGINNINGS

A 1975 symposium sponsored by the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health to study psychological stress factors in policing was the catalyst for police officer wellness programs, which began to appear in the 1980s. [2] Since that time, policing has made some progress to address police officer wellness issues; however, there is much room for improvement.

Many employee assistance programs are reactive as opposed to proactive. Zillion, a telehealth company, noted in its blog that, “Although EAPs are helpful at a stage when the employee actually requires help, it would be in the best interest of the employee and the employer to prevent the need for such treatment by putting some prevention strategies in place.” [3] The use of such programs is in many cases determined by the ability of supervisory staff to consult with and direct employees to the services available. Law enforcement is still in its infancy stage as it relates to employee wellness and the mental health treatment of police personnel. [4] 

The culture of law enforcement has always been isolated and resistant to change. Very rarely do law enforcement agencies take proactive steps to correct or enhance workplace quality or enhance their benefits to help their employees. [1] The paramilitary culture of law enforcement is at times necessary to the technical aspect of police work but is archaic in its approach to human relations and employee wellness. For police leaders to serve their employees better, agencies must be willing to step out of their comfort zones and risk changing their culture to ensure employee wellness.                 

TRANSFORMING POLICE WELLNESS PROGRAMS

Corporate America offers a great example of how holistic wellness programs can benefit employees. [5] Although inherently different, law enforcement and corporations have the same goal – to keep employees healthy and happy. The examples may seem a bit unorthodox to law enforcement, but to change the current trend, all avenues must be explored.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that U.S. businesses lose $225.8 billion per year to employee illness and injury. [6] Although policing does not have a “profit,” law enforcement can ill-afford the adverse impact to budgets that a loss of healthy officers can bring. Establishing a holistic employee wellness program can reduce employee industrial injury claims and create healthier and more productive employees, no matter their work setting. [7]

Motley Fool, a financial services company, provides a kitchen stocked with healthy snacks. With busy schedules, the company realizes the importance of providing snacks that will keep their employees healthy and active. [5] Zappos, an online shoe and clothing store, allows for a one-hour daily recess from work. This allows employees to disconnect and recharge. [5] Google provides a quiet room for employees to disconnect from work and destress during the day. [5] Employees at these companies state that they feel valued and that the companies provide a good life-work balance. [7] These companies routinely rate as the best companies to work for, and they benefit by reducing costs related to illness and injury. [7]

Similar to law enforcement, the companies mentioned understand that to fully implement a well-balanced program, the culture must support it. [8, 9] Motley Fool, Zappos and Google have established programs to shift their employee mindset on wellness, thus establishing a foundation of a sustainable wellness system. [5] Law enforcement organizations can learn from these practices to establish their own sustainable wellness systems. [9]

A 2021 University of Chicago study researched the availability of wellness programs at law enforcement agencies from a national sample of 1,135 law enforcement agencies. The study showed that 62% of law enforcement agencies offered no wellness program, 23% had a comprehensive wellness program, and about 14% of the agencies only provided resilience coping skills education, mental health or substance use treatment services. One percent of the agencies in the United States limit their wellness efforts to fitness and nutrition only. [10] Those who have not yet formalized their wellness efforts should study examples of success and take action.

One example that could be scaled for agencies of various sizes is that of the San Diego Police Department. The agency has one of the top employee wellness programs in the country. [9] The program is built on three pillars:

  • Staff to manage and deliver services in their employee wellness program;
  • Additional service providers and programs such as peer support, psychological services and issue-specific programs;
  • Training.

San Diego PD has also established metrics to measure the success of their employee wellness program, conducting quarterly management reports and surveys. At the end of its first two years, it surveyed 240 employees. Seventy percent felt that the stigma associated with asking for help was decreasing. Officers were more receptive to treatment plans, as well as more open to seeking services to help with stress, anxiety and personal issues. [9]

CONCLUSION

Health screenings, mental health evaluations, updated training and holistic employee wellness programs can provide the ongoing skills necessary to deal with the day-to-day strains of police work. The benefits will be measured at the end of a police officer’s career.

All police agencies no matter their size can establish wellness programs. A peer support team may be just as beneficial to a small agency as an entire employee wellness division would be at a larger agency. The importance is to do something. Waiting for the employees to figure things out on their own is not realistic or responsible.

A true measure of success will be police professionals retiring healthier – mentally and physically – as well as seeing a decrease in injuries related to mental health and stress.

REFERENCES       

1. Spence DL, et al. (2019.) Law Enforcement Mental Health and Wellness Act: Report to Congress. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Justice.

2. NIOSH. (1975.) Job stress and the police officer: identifying stress reduction techniques. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

3. Staff, Zillion. (November 3, 2021).  8 Reasons EAPs May Not Be the Best Option

4. Eastern Oregon University. Fire Service Mental Health: Culture and Resources

5. Levin R. 45 Successful Corporate Wellness Programs Employees Will Love. SnackNation.

6. Stinson C, et al. (January 28, 2015). Worker Illness and Injury Costs U.S. Employers $225.8 Billion Annually. CDC Foundation.

7. Thorgeirsson T. (February 14, 2018). How to implement technology into your employee wellness plan. Corporate Wellness Magazine.

8. Fournier, Joseph E. (March 4, 2021). Do Corporate Wellness Programs Work? SHRM.org.

9. Police Executive Research Forum. (2018). Building and Sustaining an Officer Wellness Program: Lessons from the San Diego Police Department. Washington, DC: Office of Community Oriented Policing Services.

10. Taylor BG, et al. (December 22, 2021). A national study of the availability of law enforcement agency wellness programming for officers: A latent class analysis. Sage Journals, International Journal of Police Science & Management.  


About the author

Lieutenant Gus Jimenez has been in law enforcement for 23 years. He has worked numerous assignments throughout his career including patrol, investigations, gangs and narcotics, S.W.A.T, community relations, internal Investigation unit, peer support coordinator, jail, dispatch and records bureau manager.

Lieutenant Jimenez, has a Bachelor of Science Degree from Cal State University Long Beach, and a Master of Science Degree from National University in Organizational Leadership.

Lieutenant Jimenez is a graduate of the California POST Sherman Block Supervisory Institute, as well as California POST Command College.

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