Protecting the protectors

by Steve Lynk

A law enforcement agency’s number one priority is to keep its community safe. But what happens when the officers charged with that responsibility aren’t protected from the pressure and stress that come with the job? Police officers have always been exposed to dangerous situations, but recent events such as the coronavirus pandemic and the civil unrest in the wake of George Floyd’s death have intensified the risks and instability they face each day.

Police officers are often held to higher standards than the general population, and that has been apparent as we navigate through one of the most precarious times in recent history. They are expected to put their personal safety at risk and remain strong in the face of uncertainty. They are required to show up when the rest of the community is advised to stay home, and they are asked to become intermediaries between the community and civil disorder.

These situations not only put officers’ physical safety at risk, but they also jeopardize their mental health and can lead to anxiety, depression, burnout and even suicide. Police departments invest time and money up front on psychological screenings and background investigations of police candidates, but there really is no way to predict the situations each officer will face and the effects it will have on their mental well-being. However, there are steps departments can take to protect the mental health of their officers and employees.

Start at the top

The first thing police departments should focus on is educating supervisors on recognizing signs of stress and providing them with the resources to help officers cope with those issues. Holding supervisor–officer meetings to discuss stress management gives supervisors firsthand insight into what officers might be struggling with and the challenges they are facing. It also gives them the opportunity to look for the subtle signs of stress or depression they might not notice in general interactions. Additionally, these meetings open the door for officers who are reluctant to reach out for help.

Support and training for all

Officers may not always feel comfortable speaking with their superiors. Establishing peer support groups allows officers to talk with the people who understand their line of work and the associated issues that come with it. Some agencies initiate peer support teams composed of officers who have received specialized mental health training. These officers can provide proper coping mechanisms and refer officers to mental health professionals when needed. Law enforcement employees at all levels should be given resources to help them identify stress and depression. Police administrators should have an open-door policy and encourage employees and officers to report when they see signs of depression in their peers.

Some signs of police officer stress include:

  • Withdrawal and isolation
  • Irritability and becoming angry with others quickly
  • Mood swings
  • Lack of motivation or interest
  • Poor hygiene or decline in physical appearance
  • Loss of compassion or empathy

Educate and evaluate

Incorporating anti-stigma education into employee training also 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. Areas of concentration include basic understanding of mental illness, effective communication, treating colleagues with respect and conflict resolution skills. Effective internal anti-stigma training may also improve officers’ decision-making when they encounter people who demonstrate signs of mental or emotional problems in the field.

Some police departments have policies that require officers to relinquish their badge and gun or be taken off duty if they articulate feelings of depression. Many officers also fear that they will be passed over for promotions or moved to a different department after seeking help. These actions and beliefs can increase anxiety and lead to further emotional stress and isolation. Instead, departments should consider conducting reflective, thorough evaluations before taking action. Encourage officers to share their feelings openly and involve them in decision-making. This empowers the officer, reduces anxiety and fosters mutual trust. When officers are included in the evaluation and decision-making process, they have a better understanding of, and comfort with, the outcome.

Control the controllable

Some factors that contribute to officer stress simply can’t be eliminated. Exposure to traumatic events, making life-and-death decisions and the intense responsibility of protecting the community all come with the job. There are, however, some work-related stress factors that can be identified and controlled by administrators.

Much of police officers’ stress can be attributed to their demanding work schedules, characterized by long hours, shift rotations and excessive overtime. This leads to officer fatigue, which is a major obstacle to physical and mental well-being. Administrators should conduct proactive staffing analyses to determine their department’s staffing levels. Some variables to consider include mandated staffing levels, budget, anticipated workload, officer-to-population ratios, response time and crime levels. As a result of the pandemic and growing public unrest, administrators should re-evaluate their requirements to accommodate their community’s “new normal.”

Supervisors are responsible for ensuring the department is staffed with enough officers for each shift. To ensure adequate coverage, many police departments have adopted employee scheduling software, which makes staffing calculations according to the department’s 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 personnel in times of crisis.

Shift duration also should be considered as it relates to officer fatigue and overall mental health. A study conducted by the National Police Foundation determined that officers who worked 10-hour shifts got significantly more sleep and worked fewer overtime hours than officers who worked 8-hour shifts. Officers who worked 12-hour shifts reported greater levels of fatigue and lower levels of alertness.

Get personal

Work life directly impacts police officers’ personal lives and relationships. A career in law enforcement forces officers to miss holidays, birthdays, school and sports activities, and other important milestones. This can lead to a stressful home life, which is not only difficult for officers to manage, but can also impair their ability to effectively perform their job. 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.

Much of police officers’ stress can be attributed to their demanding work schedules. Fatigue is a major obstacle to physical and mental well-being.

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. Some employee scheduling software allows supervisors to create schedules for any time frame and copy schedule patterns and rotations. Additionally, the software gives supervisors a means to notify officers of schedule changes. Software that includes a mobile app provides officers with instant access to real-time schedules, so everyone always has the most current schedule information.

Police departments can also sponsor family-friendly events and safety programs. This not only gives officers the opportunity to spend time with their spouses and children, but also enables the police department to establish trust with community members.

Police administrators and supervisors play a critical role in helping officers and employees manage stress levels. A department that provides mental health education, anti-stigma practices, flexible scheduling and support for a healthy home life will positively impact its employees’ overall well-being.

Steve Lynk lives in Fargo, North Dakota, and served on the Fargo Police Department for 30 years. He held several positions within the department, including patrol officer, sergeant and lieutenant. Steve retired from the police department in 2015 and is currently the senior law enforcement account executive at Atlas Business Solutions, Inc., a software marketing company specializing in employee and officer scheduling software, including ScheduleAnywhere.

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