It’s no secret that law enforcement is a demanding profession. Long hours and high-stress situations can easily lead to burnout. Just like there is no way to predict the situations each officer will face each day, there isn’t a way to foresee the effects these circumstances will have on their mental health. There are, however, steps law enforcement administrators can take to protect the mental health of their officers.
To combat officer burnout, administrators must first understand what burnout is and how to recognize it. Signs of burnout include:
- Irritability and becoming angry with others quickly
- Loss of compassion or lack of emotion
- Withdrawal and avoiding going to work
- Difficulty concentrating
- Physical illness
According to experts, there are three stages of burnout. The first stage is stress arousal. This is when the body begins to fight against stress and is characterized by irritability, high blood pressure, headaches and an inability to concentrate. The second stage occurs when the body begins to flee from stress overload and is called energy conservation. Signs of this stage include procrastination, resentfulness and indifference. The final stage of burnout is exhaustion — the body is done fighting against stress. A person in this stage experiences chronic sadness and is mentally and physically fatigued.
Continuous exposure to stressful situations and traumatic events can result in cumulative PTSD. This differs from the traditional definition of PTSD in that it is caused by prolonged and repeated exposure to trauma rather than a specific incident. Because law enforcement professionals often do not show or discuss emotional distress, this disorder is difficult to recognize. Over time, the weight of their suppressed anxiety can be overwhelming and can put them at risk for health problems, substance abuse and suicide.
To help officers who are dealing with stress, supervisors should maintain an open-door policy and encourage officers to ask for help when they need it. Establishing support groups among officers gives them a platform to talk with the people who understand the challenges they face each day. Many public safety departments provide officers with mental health training. These officers can recognize signs of stress and provide their peers with proper coping mechanisms.
Officers are often reluctant to ask for help due to the stigma associated with doing so. Many believe that seeking help is — or will be perceived to be — a sign of weakness. They may also be concerned that they will be passed over for promotions, be taken off duty or moved to a different assignment. These beliefs can increase anxiety and lead to further stress and isolation. Incorporating anti-stigma education into staff training helps facilitate a supportive culture and can play a critical role in how officers cope with stress and the steps they will take to seek help. Effective internal anti-stigma training may also improve officers’ decision-making when they encounter people who demonstrate signs of mental problems in the field.
One major contributing factor to officer burnout is not having the resources or manpower they require. To ensure the department is staffed with enough officers for each shift, many police departments have adopted employee scheduling software, which makes staffing calculations according to their specific requirements. This allows supervisors to instantly see whether there are too many or too few officers scheduled. Software with an integrated messaging system also allows supervisors to immediately contact employees to fill open shifts or meet demands for additional manpower in times of crisis.
Work life directly impacts police officers’ personal lives and relationships. A career in law enforcement forces officers to miss holidays, birthdays and other important events. This can lead to a stressful home life. Offering scheduling options that give officers more days off each month and giving them the ability to have input in setting their schedules can alleviate some stress and show officers that the agency supports a healthy home life. Building schedules out in advance and giving officers 24/7 access to their schedules helps them and their families plan future events such as vacations and family time.
Burnout and PTSD each impair an officer’s emotional well-being and can deter their ability to effectively perform their duties. By recognizing the signs of stress, encouraging officers to ask for help and providing schedule visibility, police administrators and supervisors can positively impact their staff’s overall mental health.
As seen in the September 2021 issue of American Police Beat magazine.
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