Reducing Officer Stress: Leadership’s Role

As the landscape of police work evolves, so to do the men and women who lead, supervise, and manage in law enforcement agencies. One thing that has remained constant is the fact that law enforcement is regarded as one of our nation’s most stressful occupations. Work-related stress, overall, has a devasting impact on our economy and our health.

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(File photo – Screenshot Fox 5)

  • Researchers estimate that companies in the United States lose approximately $300 billion annually because of work-stress related issues.
  • 50% of American workers feel that they need assistance in managing work-related stress.
  • Health issues prompted by work-related stress costs U.S. businesses an estimated $68 billion and causes a 10% decline in profits annually.
  • $700,000,000 is spent annually by organizations in the United States to hire and train new employees to replace those age 45-65 who die of heart attacks.
  • $10,000 is the annual cost that each organization in the United States spends on smoking employees’ health care.
  • Approximately 1 million American workers are absent from work each day because of work-stress related issues, equating to approximately 550,000,000 days per year of employee stress-related absences.
  • Forty percent of job turnover is a product of work-related stress.
  • Ten of the world’s leading causes of death, to include cardiovascular disease, which is the leading cause of death for men and women, is linked to work-related stress.
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(Courtesy DanSun Photo Art)

In a recent study that I conducted, I found that work-related stress in policing is a product of the constant interaction between the officer’s environment and the officer’s personal experience of, and response to, the experienced environment. Law enforcement officer’s stressors are divided into three categories:

  • Operational stress (e.g., exposure to traumatic events, shift work, and work-related injuries)
  • Organizational stress (e.g., bureaucratic hurdles, administrative battles, and career ambitions)
  • Personal stress

The operational and organizational stress officers experience can reach beyond that of each officer, the uniform, and the organization. People who have relationships with officers, especially intimate relationships, often experience the byproduct of an officer experience with work-related stress. Work-related stress experienced by officers is linked to posttraumatic stress symptomology, anxiety, and depression. High levels of anxiety and depression in law enforcement officers and exposure to hazardous situations are linked to high levels of alcohol use among law enforcement officers. Stress is also linked to a higher tendency to develop illnesses that are a result of deficiencies in the immune system and the development of sleep disorders in officers. A decrease in commitment to their assigned duties and attitude toward their colleagues is linked to occupational and organizational stress. Intimate partner violence or domestic violence has also been linked to operational and organizational stress.

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(Courtesy DanSun Photo Art)

So, the million-dollar question is, what can the leaders, managers, and supervisors within a law enforcement agency do to mitigate the work-related stress experienced by officers within their agency? This battle must be fought in three essential areas:

  • Organizational structure-how labor is divided and managed within an organization.
  • Organizational context-the social and environmental background of an organization.
  • Organizational control-the direction and control of tasks in an agency.

Through these the three areas listed above, leaders have the ability and opportunity to establish and promote supportive work environments that reduce stress experienced by officers. Below are a few suggestions related to each of the three areas above that may help those in charge reduce stress experienced by officers:

  • Organizational structure-how labor is divided and managed within an organization.
  1. Researchers have found that ten-hour shifts are most beneficial for officers. Officers working ten-hour shifts get more quality sleep, experience less fatigue, and report higher overall work satisfaction. Officers working eight-hour shifts report less sleep in a 24 hours period and work more overtime. Officers working twelve-hour shifts are less likely to perform self-initiated tasks.
  2. Researchers have shown that pairing officers with a partner with similar personalities reduces job dissatisfaction and increases job performance.
  3. Emphasize monotasking! Multitasking is a myth. Humans are not effective or efficient parallel processes. Neuroscience researchers indicate that multitasking doubles the amount of time to complete a task and doubles the number of mistakes made while completing the task.
  4. Promote employee assistance programs (EAP’s).
  5. Hire new officers based on individual background, coping abilities, and education levels. Hiring new officers in this manner could provide your agency with individuals better suited to deal with stress.
  • Organizational context-the social and environmental background of an organization.
  1. Research has shown that officers who have a good working relationship with administration experience less stress.
  2. Relationships between administrators and police bargaining units are also important.
  3. Leaders can implement exercise and stress reduction programs.
  4. Leaders can use anonymous stress surveys to identify sources of stress in the workplace.
  5. Leaders can take efforts to increase job meaningfulness.
  6. Lead by example, practicing self-care. If employees observe their leadership engage in wellness activities, such as staying physically fit to reduce stress, they are more inclined to participate in wellness activities.
  7. Show gratitude and practice empathy and compassion.
  8. Make wellness convenient by offering healthy meal and snack options at your agency.
  9. Train employees to deal with chaos.
  10. Focus on employee personal growth and development. Focusing on employee personal growth and development promotes creativity, potential, and productivity.
  11. Practice mindfulness, which can create mental habits that promote resilience and productivity.
  12. Include both officers and their families when developing stress related policies, procedures, and training.
  13. Understand the importance of race and gender when establishing policies and training. Researchers have shown that African American officers feel their job performance is viewed more critically. Researchers have also shown that male officers feel they must maintain masculine personas, while female officers feel that the male officers do not want them on a traditionally male dominated job.
  • Organizational control-the direction and control of tasks in an agency.
  1. From a leadership perspective, middle managers hold the key to changing the workplace culture that supports wellbeing and reduces workplace stress. Why? Middle managers are whom employees communicate with and see more often.

Stress is a phenomenon that has an immense psychological and physiological effect on officers, their families, and their friends, not to mention a devastating financial and operational effect on law enforcement agencies. Effective leadership, supervision, and management are essential in preserving the wellbeing of every officer within a law enforcement agency.

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Damon Simmons is a 19-year law enforcement veteran. Damon is currently a patrol sergeant with the Spokane County Sheriff’s Office (WA). Simmons holds a Bachelor of Science in sociology from the University of Great Falls, a Master of Science from the University of Phoenix, and a Doctor of Philosophy in criminal justice from Walden University. Damon owns and operates LEO Firstline, L.L.C., a company offering stress management education and training for law enforcement agencies as well as the public.