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Why building trust is critical to building an effective officer wellness program

The process of building trust begins with buy-in by everyone in the department


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This feature is part of Police1’s Digital Edition, “Smash the stigma: Building a culture that supports officer wellness.” Download the guide here.

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As the police suicide crisis continues unabated, agencies must do whatever is within their means to “smash the stigma” that still exists in law enforcement around officers seeking help for mental wellness issues.

Building trust is the priority for a law enforcement agency when it comes to smashing the stigma. Trust also provides the foundation for officer wellness programs that can help police officers process on-the-job trauma and restore themselves mentally for continued successful service.

Wellness programs are necessary because experiencing horrific trauma on the job is a fact of police life. Not aiding officers in processing this trauma is akin to putting a sealed water-filled pot on a super-hot stove and hoping it doesn’t blow.

The need for trust

Even the best wellness programs will not attract police officers if they fear that taking part will be used against them.

“For officers to truly adopt these programs and take part in them, they have to trust in their commanders and fellow officers that seeking help will not affect their opportunities for promotion and their respect in the department,” said Chief John Carli, a mental wellness advocate who served as the chief of police of the Vacaville (California) Police Department from April 2014 until his retirement in 2021. “Trust is what lowers the barriers to officer enrollment. Trust is what allows wellness programs to make a difference in addressing the police suicide crisis.”

“Building a trusted, agency-wide officer wellness program can literally save lives,” agrees Mandy Nice, Lexipol’s Strategic Wellness Director. Lexipol’s provision of wellness support to first responders includes the Cordico law enforcement wellness app, which has been vetted and approved by the Fraternal Order of Police’s Division of Wellness Services.

Chief Carli and Mandy Nice recommend the following key steps to build trust so that police wellness programs can succeed:

1. Earn trust

The process of building trust begins with giving trust. This means having open conversations about the importance of wellness. If you fail to build trust, the program’s success will be limited, at best.

“Building trust in this manner requires ‘direct deposits’ from the leadership and all ranks,” Chief Carli said. “This requires an open, honest and frank acknowledgment of the police suicide crisis, the role that unaddressed trauma plays in officers taking their own lives, and the logical conclusion that tackling this trauma through wellness programs is an effective, courageous and hope-inspiring way for police officers and their commanders to deal with it.”

2. Build champions

For wellness programs to gain trust, they need champions. The good news is that every department has champions waiting to step forward and support wellness. To succeed, endure and earn officer trust, a wellness program will ideally be championed by key stakeholders including members of command staff, human resources, peer support and the department’s chaplains.

3. Bring the union in

Getting union support and ongoing participation in a wellness program is also key to building trust and maximizing the program’s chances for success.

“You have to have the union buy into wellness and getting them involved is a great way to build trust,” Chief Carli said. “If you don’t have the union involved, your wellness program is not going to be trusted and it’s not going to succeed. But if you do, then your program gains credibility with the rank-and-file and is more likely to make a positive contribution to their morale and mental health.”

4. Invite and listen to input

When creating a wellness program, it is vital to listen to input from agency employees, then use their input to shape the program. Doing so helps build their trust and also helps ensure the program is relevant to their most pressing wellness needs and interests.

This is when calling in wellness experts can make a difference. For instance, “Our Lexipol and Cordico professionals help agency leaders build trust with all of their employees during the wellness program design/implementation process by listening to their wellness needs and preferences, then providing corresponding wellness resources and tools,” Nice said. “Agency leaders are then able to help employees see that their voices have been heard.”

5. Invest in high-quality programs

The quality of the wellness program – which requires adequate financial support from the department or external funding sources – will help build trust in the wellness program and in departmental leadership.

“When agency leaders invest in building and sustaining a science-based, occupation-specific, culturally-relevant, practical wellness program, it tangibly shows that not only do they believe that their employees are the most valuable resource, but they are also proud to take care of them as such,” Nice said. “That goes a long way, especially when agency leaders also take the extra step to invest in creating an internal wellness unit/leadership team. These best practices pave the way for excellent wellness program engagement and long-term success.”

6. Open the program to family

Extending the program to police officers’ family members is important because job-related trauma affects officers’ spouses and children, and their responses affect the officers’ states of mental health.

“On the first training day for your wellness program, you need to have an expert on hand to say, ‘this program is here for your families as well as you,’” Chief Carli said.

7. Back wellness with other measures

Encouraging officers to maximize their mental and physical health doesn’t stop with wellness programs. To make a real difference, supporting their physical and psychological well-being should be integrated into everything the department does daily, both to build officers’ trust and to deliver ongoing positive results.

“Examples include continuously showing positive support for employees and their wellness by encouraging them to take the best care of themselves, implementing programs and policies that help them do that, positively recognizing those who are practicing a healthy lifestyle, recommending trusted wellness resources, and/or participating in wellness activities alongside staff,” Nice said.

8. Privacy protection

Be sure to provide fully anonymous access to mental health resources at the department. Doing so is central to winning and maintaining officer trust over time.

9. Offer rewards

To enhance the attractiveness of taking part in wellness programs, police departments can offer incentives such as challenge coins, certificates of achievement and even prizes.

“You need to make taking part in wellness programs a positive, rewarding, morale-building experience,” Nice said. “If you do choose to offer wellness program incentives, remember that it’s best to under-promise and over-deliver.”

The bottom line

Wellness programs are a positive way for police departments to lower staff suicide risks, and trust is key to motivating officers to participate in them.

“As police chiefs, you are leading organizations whose members experience significant trauma on the job,” Chief Carli said. “Wellness programs and enhanced trust are positive ways to address that trauma.”

NEXT: The value of mental wellness check-ins for law enforcement

James Careless is an award-winning freelance writer who covers the public safety sector. His articles have been published in fire, EMS and law enforcement publications across North America.