Investigations work comes with a unique set of stressors. On the surface, investigations work, with its “regular hours,” time spent on the computer rather than on the beat and allowance for predictability and routine, may give the impression of ease. Yet this work comes with myriad psychological stressors that may lead to burnout and trauma contamination. Caseload, case types and case outcomes are three primary factors that contribute to investigator burnout.
Few detectives I know work the “regular” nine-to-five hours. Investigations work can feel like a bottomless pit of cases. Thus, for many detectives, who tend be highly driven individuals, the solution is to work more. You eat lunch at your desk (or skip lunch altogether), you come in early and leave late, you take cases home and continue to work on the weekends. If this sounds like you, this is not sustainable! Certainly, you will have cases that for whatever reason require a more sustained effort; however, this should be the exception rather than the norm. Pose yourself the question, “If I worked 24/7, would I be able to get everything done and get every case closed and off my desk?” If the answer is “no” (and it should be, as cases will always keep coming in), and that even if you gave the job all your time you would still not get everything done, then maybe it is time to give yourself permission to take a lunch break, leave on time and even leave the case files at work. Additionally, rest and recovery are the keys to a sharp mind. While this may seem counterintuitive, you will be a more efficient worker if you take time to leave work at work. As an added bonus, your spouse will be a happy camper.
Thankfully, it is becoming more commonly recognized that certain case assignments should be time-limited. Investigating crimes against children, for example, will start to impact even the most hardened detectives. Just a few factors that may contribute to traumatic stress include: the age (and, therefore, innocence and helplessness) of the victim, the number of victims, the method of assault or homicide, and the level of brutality of the crime. Additionally, cases in which the victim may have the same name, be of close age or otherwise resemble the investigators’ own children may be particularly difficult. Investigators also have to work closely with the family members of the victims, which means exposure to traumatic reminders will be prolonged, and it may be more difficult to view case-related materials as simply “evidence.” All of this means that certain investigation types may lead to faster burnout and traumatic stress. Unfortunately, many LEOs still believe that to leave investigative work, or switch to another division, would make them look “weak,” that they would be abandoning their duty and/or that less-experienced detectives will not do as good of a job. These can be powerful forces that keep investigators silently suffering. If this sounds like you, take the time to evaluate your priorities. Think about your family, your mental health, your ability to enjoy retirement, etc. Eventually you will need to pass the torch to other investigators, what you have control over is when you do it.
Lastly, case outcomes are another important factor that may contribute to stress. Unsolved cases, cases in which not enough evidence exists for an arrest and even cases that are tried but seem acquitted unjustly may lead to burnout. Even when an investigator does everything right, many times due to factors outside of their control, the outcome may not lead to justice. Hundreds of hours of hard work for seemingly no good outcome. Over and over again, this experience can create a sense of hopelessness and frustration with the system. If you find yourself feeling overly cynical, shift your attention to the factors that you can control by noticing when you use “should” on yourself. When you think, for example, “The district attorney’s office should pursue this case,” you’re focusing on the DA’s behavior, which you ultimately have no control over. Notice when you use should/shouldn’t in your thinking and try to break it down into what you actually have control over in the situation. This will help take your focus away from what is frustrating you and help you channel your energy into what you can do.