All careers have their fair share of stress, but those in law enforcement, such as police officers, can have higher stress levels given the nature of their job. So, what are the different types of police stress?
While the stressors can vary, most types of police stress can be sorted into two categories: Individual and Work-Related. Work-related stress can be a result of factors such as poor management, excessive overtime, frequent changes in shifts or assigned duties, exposure to traumatic events, and threats to their health and safety. Individual stress can be attributed to factors such as family problems, finances, health concerns, and stressors associated with gender.
Impact of Stress on Police Officers
Stress can have different effects on the body depending on how often it is experienced and how severe the stress is. Generally speaking, high stress levels can often have a domino-effect in the way that it impacts someone’s health and daily routine. Stress can impact different aspects of our health, including our ability to sleep and overall levels of exhaustion.
The work-related stressors that police officers experience, such as constant shift changes or the expectation to consistently work overtime, can lead to high levels of fatigue or exhaustion. The combination of both stress and fatigue usually results in a negative impact on sleep. Additionally, all of these facets that are affected by work-related stressors (sleep, fatigue, and overall stress levels) can also be impacted by an officer’s individual stressors. The negative impact that stress can have on their sleep, in addition to chronic fatigue and high levels of stress, can result in negative effects on an officer’s overall physical and mental health.
Stress and Its Effects on Physical Health
The physical symptoms or illnesses associated with stress can vary from mild to severe. Mild stress levels are usually a result of temporary life events or incidents that create stress. Severe stress levels are usually experienced by Police Officers that are repeatedly being exposed to stressful situations.
Mild stress levels can cause chronic headaches, low energy, chest pain, muscle aches and can create temporary disruptions in sleep. Severe levels of stress can cause extreme changes in weight, can lead to gastrointestinal problems and high blood pressure, and can damage the cardiovascular system (ie. cause heart disease). Severe levels of stress can also affect the immune system; Stress can make it more difficult to be able to fight off an illness or disease. These severe levels of stress can make an officer physically ill, affect their health long-term, and affect their ability to recover from illnesses or diseases.
Stress and Its Effects on Mental Health
High levels of stress can have a severe impact on an officer’s mental health. In general, stress can lead to impaired judgement, increased mood swings, and increases an individual’s chances of developing a mental illness such as anxiety or depression. Long-term, or chronic stress, can negatively affect a police officer’s memory, their attention, and the way they deal with their emotions.
Some of the stressors that police officers experience that affect their mental health are associated with work-related incidents, such as shootings or witnessing traumatic events. Officers report feeling guilt, anxiety, fear, nightmares, and insomnia following involvement in a shooting. Officers are also at risk of developing Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) as a result of experiencing a traumatic incident. These high levels of mental and emotional stress, accompanied by their risk for developing a mental illness, can drastically reduce an officer’s overall quality of life.
In general, female officers experience more stress than their male counterparts. Female officers tend to get less support from their supervisors and male colleagues. They are also more likely to get disapproval for entering police work. The disapproval expressed by both colleagues and loved ones lead female officers to feel the need to “prove themselves,” creating an additional layer of stress that is not experienced by male colleagues.
Other factors that lead to female officers experiencing more stress include higher incidents of sexual harassment, lack of acceptance and mentoring, and higher workloads overall as a result of an unequal division of household tasks. Female police officers that identify as minorities, such as African American officers, also report feeling higher stress levels due to both gender and their minority status.
Do Police Officers Seek Help?
Police Officers can sometimes be reluctant to seek help. There is stigma associated with seeking support for mental health concerns. This can be especially true for police officers who are not only concerned about the stigma, but may also be concerned about being deemed incapable to do their job. Police Officers do not want to appear unstable or undependable as this would put their employment at risk.
What Can Police Officers / Departments Do to Prevent Stress?
Depending on the stressor, there are a few different things that can be done to help prevent or reduce stress in Police Officers. Potential solutions that can be offered to mitigate work-related stressors include:
- Create new policies and implement trainings; Establishing further policy to prevent discrimination and training personnel on the positive aspects of women in law enforcement can help address gender-related stressors.
- Avoid mandatory overtime hours; Creating schedules that minimize overtime and prevent constant shift changes can help reduce overtime requirements and avoid burnout.
- Encourage officers to take time off; Having officers take time off gives them time to “recharge” and connect with their support systems.
- Promote healthy lifestyle habits; Engaging in physical activity can help with stress. Police Departments can promote this by creating cycling clubs or offering gym memberships to those interested in improving their overall physical health.
- Provide incentives for officers to engage with their primary care provider; Talking to their doctors about stress can help connect officers to stress management resources.
- Provide officers with health benefits that include Mental Health resources; Offering free therapy sessions can give officers a much needed resource when experiencing high stress levels.
- Create support groups; Offering a space for officers to discuss issues with others in the same line of work can help provide them with much needed support.
- Foster connections between officers by creating a peer-to-peer model of support; This model can make it easier for officers to begin to share their concerns, as the person they would be talking to would be considered as “one of their own” as opposed to an outsider.
Officers experiencing high stress levels due to individual-related stressors can explore the following tips to address their stress:
- Develop healthier eating and drinking habits; Excessive eating or consumption of alcohol are sometimes used to cope with stress, but can leave you feeling worse and affecting your physical health.
- Reduce your caffeine consumption; high levels of caffeine can increase anxiety and affect your sleep. If you feel jittery after having coffee or beverages with caffeine, think about cutting back.
- Incorporate exercise to your daily routine; Exercise can be a great stress reliever, and can help address some of the negative impacts that stress has on physical health.
- Practice relaxation techniques; Creating a time and space every day to practice relaxation techniques can help address stress. There are many free online resources, such as apps and videos, that help teach individuals about relaxation techniques.
- Spend time with friends or family; Receiving support from friends and family can help get you through a tough time. Connecting with others can also help put your stressors into perspective or can provide you with some great advice.
- Spend time on your hobbies, or find a new one; Setting aside a time to do something you enjoy can help reduce stress. You do not have to spend a lot of time on your hobby, even 15 minutes can help. These hobbies can also help get you moving and outside, such as playing golf or going for a run.
- Set boundaries; It is okay to say no to something when you are feeling overwhelmed. If something is taking up too much of your time and creating additional stress, you may want to think about setting a boundary and taking a step back to help reduce your level of stress.
- Consider participating in therapy; Sometimes we need additional help or an outside perspective to help us deal with our current stressors. A therapist can provide the help you need to address your concerns.
Final Thoughts – Types of Police Stress
Police Officers are at a higher risk of developing higher levels of stress given the stressful nature of their profession. Those stress levels may also be impacted by an officer’s individual stressors, access to a support system, and gender. High levels of stress, whether individual or work-related, can cause harm to a Police Officer’s physical and mental health. The longer that an officer experiences high levels of stress, the more likely they are to develop both physical and mental health illnesses.
Police Officers can adapt healthy habits into their daily routine that can help address their current levels of stress. While engaging in individual support services or stress-reducing techniques can definitely be helpful, there is also plenty that their employer can do to support officers within the workplace.