Nowadays, many police officers feel less control over their work life and work identity. The national discourse on policing is having a negative impact on police officers’ pride in their work. Adding insult to injury, many police officers also struggle with what I am referring to as police identity disorder. It’s not an actual diagnosis, but rather, a problematic tendency for police officers to narrow their self-concept to their work identity.
Do we really need a disorder named after us?
When I announced I was doing a training on this for Concerns of Police Survivors, I got a stern message from someone who thought I was badmouthing police officers, giving them this ugly title. That’s not the case at all. I’m naming what I’ve been seeing for many years: cops who don’t know who they are outside of their police role. They don’t know what they’re interested in, what they’re good at besides policing or how they’d ever spend their time if they weren’t working. Well, this lack of self-knowledge can be a serious issue if they’re on medical leave, administrative leave or nearing retirement. Those are difficult periods in their own right, without having the added stress of not knowing how to pass the time.
Why can’t I maintain work–life balance even though I know I need to?
Many will blame it on external circumstances — shift work, overtime, callouts, etc. To an extent, these are true barriers to having a life outside of work. However, I’ve known plenty of cops who choose to work extra because they like the money and don’t think they have anything better to do. I’m calling BS on that. Much of the time, it’s your self-concept that influences your daily activities. For instance, if I tell you to take up skiing and you’re afraid of heights and hate the cold, you’re not even going to entertain the idea!
How do you maintain multiple identities to avoid disorder?
The secret sauce to doing this has three ingredients: 1) awareness, 2) planning and 3) persistence. Awareness precedes change. You must be aware of how you’re thinking of your life roles and how you’re spending your time. Which life roles are important to you or what do you want in your life? (For example, do you want to be a spouse, parent, friend, community member, church member, hockey team player?) Take a look at your weekly life to see if you’re taking actions based on identities that are important to you. You can say they’re important to you, but if you don’t put your money where your mouth is, they’re just words, not lived values.
Planning means making a weekly schedule with each of these identified roles. Plan for recreation, family/social time and health practices with the same dedication as your work life. When you get into these roles, you may have to redirect back to your personal life when others start talking about work. With co-workers who are friends, agree to give yourselves 15 to 20 minutes to talk about work and then move on to talking about or just being in your personal life and enjoying what you’re doing. Maintaining connections to non-police friends can also be helpful. They might ask you about work because they’re curious, but you can come back with, “I’m focusing on being Dad tonight at this PTA meeting.”
Lastly, be persistent. Change takes time to become the norm. If you find yourself drifting back to thoughts of work or talking about it, or automatically taking an overtime shift, that’s OK. Just do better next time.
Having a life and identity outside of your work will improve your overall well-being because you have more control over personal life roles and they’re more likely to include positive interactions with others. If you’re having a terrible day (week, year) at work, building a life outside of work could provide you with more enjoyment and a sense of control over your circumstances. This, in turn, can make you better prepared to face the challenges of policing.
Dr. Stephanie Conn is a former police officer, a licensed psychologist at First Responder Psychology in Beaverton, Oregon (firstresponderpsychology. com), and the author of Increasing Resilience in Police and Emergency Personnel.