Everyone is familiar with the term burnout. It can happen in any job, whether that’s as a banker, a teacher, a nurse, or, you guessed it, a police officer. Although anyone can be the victim of burnout, our first responders are especially vulnerable due to the high levels of stress you face nearly every day.
One of the big contributors to police burnout, at least in my opinion, is the vicarious trauma that comes with the job. Vicarious trauma, also known as second hand trauma, comes from witnessing traumatic events and interacting with the people who have faced severe trauma.
When you, our officers, arrive to a fatal crash and help transport a mutilated body, you may not be as emotionally invested in that case as would a family member or friend. However, you are still witnessing that horror and seeing that loss of human life. More than likely you are also witnessing and interacting with that person’s loved ones. You often absorb the shock and devastation that loved one is feeling.
We’ve all heard of empathy, and it’s an amazing human quality. However, it also can drain us, especially when we’re required to use it over and over again. That’s why we hear about “compassion fatigue.”
There are many other factors that build up in our officer’s lives—the long hours, shift work, increasing amount of responsibilities, and the overall pressure.
Lately our society has become accepting of an anti-police culture and anti-police propaganda is the norm. In response to this, many departments are becoming stricter on policies and procedures and quicker to investigate officers. This can mean added stress on our officers, and a sense of “the man is against me.”
When we feel like our departments or higher ups aren’t “on our side” we are more likely to become burnt out. Consequently, it turns into “us against them.”
There’s also a national shortage of police officers right now, which means our officers are having to work longer and more frequent shifts. It also means you’re less likely to get a lunch break or have that vacation time approved.
Burnout can look like a lack of energy, withdrawing from family or friends, not taking interest in the things you used to enjoy (like certain hobbies or activities), drinking more than you used to or for different reasons, too much or too little sleep, hypervigilance, headaches or stomachaches, and being overly critical or pessimistic. This can lead to PTSD, anxiety, depression, and a whole host of other problems if left unaddressed.
So … now that we know what contributes to burnout and how to spot it, what do we actually do about it?
Take care of yourself. I know, I know, you hear this all of the time. But are you REALLY making the time to drink enough water, eat something other than fast food, and getting at least a decent amount of sleep on your days off? When we eat crappy, we feel crappy. When we lack sleep, we lack patience and clarity. Our physical health contributes to our mental health—make it a priority.
Have fun. Sounds pretty straightforward, doesn’t it? Well, it is! As an officer you work extremely hard. As a result, you should have an extreme amount of fun, too. There’s a reason “work hard, play hard” is a saying. Make it a priority to do the things you enjoy when you can, that are the opposite of what you do at work; things that make you feel relaxed, carefree, and less tense.
Make clear boundaries. My officer would laugh at me for this one, since this is an area I really struggle in. It can be hard to separate yourself from work, especially in jobs that include shift work or odd hours, call ins, and a never-ending load of paperwork.
As much as you can, take your days off seriously. They’re your days OFF for a reason. You should be doing as little “policing” as you can! Don’t check your email, silence your work phone, quit checking your local news, and enjoy your time off. Overtime is lovely (at least the paycheck that comes with it is) but should not be a regular occurrence if you can help it.
Love your people. We’re here for a reason. Enjoy the time you have with your spouse, kids, parents, and friends. Spending time with your friends and family is one of the best ways to unwind. And having healthy, supportive relationships is valuable.
Make plans to go fishing with a buddy, take your spouse out on a date, throw the ball around in the backyard with your kid. Humans were created for interactions and relationships. You see enough unhealthy and negative interactions at work. So soak up all of the positive ones you can when you’re home.
If you’re reading this and thinking, “that’s me” or “that sounds like my officer,” you’re not alone. Any officer that’s been around awhile can tell you that they’ve gone through something similar. Make time for your wellbeing and recognize your burnout signs before they get too far. Moreover, if it’s already gone too far, please reach out to someone who can help. There’s no shame or weakness if needing a hand up sometimes, that’s what we, your village, are here for.
Cote is a family therapist and LEOW. She uses her background and education as an MSW to provide support for police families and marriages, and is the founder of the faith based blog ammo + grace.