A career in law enforcement can be highly rewarding, but it also can require officers to confront extreme levels of stress. Tasked with the vital job of maintaining law and order, as well as investigating crimes and serving as community role models, police officers face extraordinary situations every day. Quite often police officers are exposed to high levels of trauma and must do their jobs under strict scrutiny from superiors as well as the public.
Law enforcement is a high-risk occupation. Officers frequently are exposed to violence, human suffering, physically demanding work, and nonstandard/rotating schedules. In fact, Time magazine ranked policing as the fourth most stressful profession after enlisted military personnel, firefighters and pilots.
Police departments conduct background investigations and psychological screenings of police candidates to find applicants with the right dispositions to perform the job. Even individuals tailor-made for the job can succumb to the stress of working in law enforcement. Many officers may develop anxiety, depression and symptoms commensurate with post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD. That is why adequate support and readily available access to stress and trauma relief can be vital for officers’ well-being. There are many different ways the public and police departments can help officers confront the effects of the job on their physical and mental health.
- Educate personnel about policies and keep officers in the know. According to retired lieutenant and police instructor Brian McKenna, one of the biggest stressors police officers face is not out on the streets, but in the work environment. “It’s the politics, poor supervision, things coming down from administration that don’t make sense, and so on,” McKenna says. Officers who understand the laws and why certain policies and restrictions are in place are better equipped to make smart decisions. Keeping the flow of information open within departments can help.
- Provide access to exercise. The mental health resource Psychology Dictionary advises that cardiovascular activity is important for anyone who has a physically demanding job. It also is an excellent stress reliever. Access to a gym at the precinct can help. Fitness facilities can do their part to support law enforcement by offering free or discounted memberships to local law enforcement.
- Match officers’ strengths with their assignments. While it is impractical to accommodate an officer in every way, administrators can take more time to align officers’ skills and strengths with positions in the department that most effectively utilize their skill sets. Satisfaction in a position, as well as doing the job effectively, can make a long-term positive impact that reduces stress.
- Build a support system. Officers need people they can talk to. Peer-to-peer support is important, but a good group of friends, compassionate family members and a supportive local community can help officers overcome the challenges associated with their profession.
Local law enforcement officials provide vital services to the communities they serve. Those communities can show their appreciation by supporting officers as they confront the unique challenges a career in law enforcement presents.