Public Service Is Greater Than Yourself
Law enforcement responds to various calls with little information upon arrival, delving head first into virtually unknown circumstances basing their thoughts and actions upon vague details. Sounds kind of like an uncomfortable situation perhaps. I rather love it. What problems or conflicts present to us behind each door is an exciting aspect of the profession. It keeps mundane from being the routine. Adds some dynamics and danger to the mix.
Civilians often ask us how we do it. I do not believe most of us even give it another thought. We just depersonalize these events over time and feel a drive to help others without examining how some stressors have negative effects upon our well-being. It’s getting compartmentalized in each of us. We get so used to moving from one human misery to another that I often wonder if we really absorb what is going on with our psyche. In fact, we seldom address it because we are toughened by our profession and that’s what we are expected to do.
What exactly is a stressor for police officers? Basically everything influences perceptions and experiences. Members of law enforcement are regulated on and off duty. Officers are bombarded with images and memories of human suffering, exposed to dangerous incidents, and are subjected to many demands. We have families. We have relationships. Additionally, it is important to keep physically and mentally fit while maintaining a healthy lifestyle. Impossible mission? How do we keep up with all of that?
Many times we don’t. In fact, we are so used to putting our jobs and others first, we allow ourselves to become unhealthy. We eat the wrong things. We might skip fitness because we are too worn out. Some might even drink too much or engage in other destructive behaviors. I would bet, however, most officers have some positive outlets such as recreational activities, hobbies, and other pursuits and interests. Good or bad choices, all are coping mechanisms.
Police burnout is a conditioned psychological response to stressors influencing an individual in which the impacts can draw from various areas of work and police life. It can be temporary or chronic. After you have been in the profession for a few years, you begin to witness this problem in others and possibly in yourself.
What do burned out officers look like? They are those who have withdrawn from the vigor of the job and display compassion fatigue. Maybe they are not silent sufferers and vocalize their lack of motivation and job satisfaction. Perhaps they are considered lazy and avoid work at all costs. Some might be rude to citizens or their peers. Performance declines. Relationships are damaged or destroyed, personal or otherwise. If left unaddressed, it can become a syndrome reaching an emergency state of mental exhaustion with dire consequences such as destructive behaviors, incidents of police brutality, and even suicidal ideations. Additionally, compacted stressors can lead to medical issues. All phases of police burnout have a snowball effect of individual damages and organizational deficit.
We all recognize what it is. We may not realize the initial stages or even acknowledge early detection. When it lingers on into a chronic syndrome it can be detrimental and result in a longer recovery. That’s a sacrifice to our health that we subconsciously concede to and ultimately should try to prevent. Then there’s that stigma thing.
How do we know what the symptoms are? Burnout slowly takes effect in individuals often unwary of the condition. There are several below but not limited to only these which should raise red flags. Unfortunately, they can also be symptoms of chronic stages in which a peace officer has sustained psychological strain for several months.
- An officer will feel a constant mental exhaustion which can lead to physical fatigue.
- It will feel like an internal fire of mental depletion which cannot be extinguished by a few positive adjustments or changes to remedy the issue.
- An individual will display compassion fatigue and lack empathy with citizens on a regular basis and often is rude to peers as well.
- Depersonalization will be extreme and an officer may also withdraw socially altogether.
- Destructive behaviors and negative social choices are observed.
- Relationships are damaged or strained.
- Work performance is consistently below standards and in graphic decline.
- An officer will lack motivation, dread work, and abuse sick leave.
- Mental clarity and judgment will be impaired.
- Procedural and tactical mistakes may become evident.
- Insubordination is not uncommon in severe cases.
- Medical issues can arise such as but not limited to hypertension, diabetes, and metabolic syndrome.
- Incidents of police brutality may present itself to unlikely officers previously engaged in exemplary behavior and conduct.
- Emergency conditions may escalate to suicidal ideologies and severe depression.
It is very true officers freely protect others, but often neglect caring for themselves. Public service is a dedication to something greater than oneself. Peace officers have honor, pride, and integrity, which is exactly what is expected of the position. Sometimes it contributes to a perceived stigma of being able to handle everything without missing a stride. We also need to find a balance in our lives. So what can we do better to prevent burnout?
- Exercise regularly. This aids in your physical fitness and helps with mental clarity. Plus you will be faster at catching bad guys in a foot pursuit.
- Eat healthy and pay attention to nutrition. Garbage in, garbage out. Sure, we can still have sweets. We just don’t need to eat the whole cake.
- Choose some outlets such as hobbies, sports, or other activities. Volunteer. Garden. Focus on something outside of work or challenge yourself to a new endeavor.
- Give quality attention to your family and relationships. These folks support us even on our darkest days. At least we can return the favor and show them they matter.
- Stay updated and educated on professional standards, skills, training, and case law. Power yourself with knowledge. Keep fresh.
- Take vacations. They are benefits given to you for a reason. It is beneficial to decompress.
- Often departments offer courses of action for employees and/or employee assistance programs. Inquire into what is available. I suspect these options are often articulated to all officers or readily found in organizational materials, websites, or manuals.
- Phone a friend. Many agencies have peer support groups to address stressors, police life, and culture.
- If you need counseling, seek professional assistance. Check with your health provider to solicit relief options and inquire about free services when available.
These are a few suggestions but don’t limit yourself. Explore other positive outlets and regimens. Take police burnout seriously. Do not ignore the warning signs. If you feel yourself or a colleague is suffering from a chronic condition, seek assistance. Peer support is critical. We jump at the chance to back each other up on the streets. The same should go for our well-being. Too often officers are left to self-remedy.
Being a peace officer is the greatest job on earth. Those of us who have been in the profession for a long time understand this. We also recognize it can take a toll. The stressors stemming from the constant exposure to human misery can also damage our psyche over time. Find a balance. You need to take care of yourself so you are prime to serve others. Be safe.
Kathryn Loving is a former peace officer for the Casper Police Department, Casper, Wyoming, where she held assignments as a patrol officer, detective, and hostage negotiator. She is currently pursuing a Master’s Degree in Public Administration with concentration in Criminal Justice and Criminology. Her research focus is on police stress, burnout, and best practices in law enforcement.
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