Given its invasive presence in literally every aspect of the human life, stress in unavoidable. At the workplace, stress is likely to take a toll on productivity, the physical and emotional health of the individuals. Law enforcement is among the organizations that rank highly as one of the most stressful occupations globally. According to Jaramillo, Nixon, and Sams (2005) law enforcers are exposed to acute stressors that are not present in the same frequency and intensity as other job areas. Notably, although statistics indicate that police occupation fatalities are significantly lower as compared to other occupations such as construction workers, the fact that they are in constant danger contributes to overall stress. Further, research indicates that several factors such as role conflict, lack of supervisory support, among others contribute to work stressors within the law enforcement. Stress can also increase fatigue to the point of impairing the decision-making of the officers leading to their inability to execute their role and perform their duties properly. Consistently, we explore the stress in law enforcement by examining the various stressors inherent to policing and their impact. We then identify the departmental efforts that can be put in place to help officers alleviate the stressors as well as the role the officers can play in the process.
Causes of Police Officer Stress
It is without a doubt that the law enforcement profession is a stressful occupation. Officers are repeatedly exposing their lives in danger to protect the community and maintain safe neighborhoods. According to Avdija (2014), law enforcers are exposed to various scenarios that require both physical and mental abilities to execute their duties properly. While the public may be aware of the fact that police officers are required to deal with dangerous criminals, they are less aware of the amount of stress accompanied by the daily activities of the officers. Consequently, there are different types of stressors classified into different groups such as organizational, operational, external, and personal stressors. Ideally, in their most basic definition, stressors are antecedents or stimuli of strain and can be conceived at both the individual and organizational level. As Avdija (2014) notes, among the most serious stressors, are operational stress, followed by organization stressors, external stressors, and personal stressors. Further, the stressors can also be classified into two groups – operational and organizational stressors under work-related and external stressors and personal stressors under individual-related stressors.
The nature of a law enforcer involves dealing with criminals or victims of crime. From both ends of the spectrum, the individuals suffer in one way or another. For instance, Avdija (2014) notes, experiencing tragedy in the line of duty is one of the most likely operational stressors. Police officers are expected to put their lives at stake when dealing with criminals and come face to face with threats on their lives every day of the work life. The fact that their life is always at risk and can be injured or killed anytime can weigh down on their emotional state and lead to stress. Another group of stressors falls under organizational stressors and may include frequent rotating and shift change, the absence of supervisory support, poor management, and excessive overtime among others. Ideally, regardless of type, job-related stressors have been known to have a negative impact on the employees’ health. The nature of law enforcers puts them at a higher risk of developing health-related problems. Majority of the officers work under intense pressure from their job and sometimes from superiors to crack down on criminals. Their job is demanding as they are expected to apply both physical and mental capabilities. Consequently, officers transitioning between different shifts are likely to experience insomnia, which is a form of sleeplessness leading to work fatigue a symptom manifested in stress (Avdija, 2014). Police officers also do not get a chance to participate in the decision-making process, which means they are unable to express their opinion and are not consulted on issues related to their work (Kumar & Kamalanabhan, 2014). By not participating in the decision-making process, police officers are likely to feel worthless and unappreciated, which may weigh down on their emotional state. Along with that, the law enforcement has been accused of unfairness in the past. According to Kumar and Kamalanabhan, the police force is manifested with bias at work and promotion and rewards are not based on merit but favoritism and nepotism. In such a case, bias is likely to inhibit job satisfaction, which is likely to cause job stress on the officers.
Alongside the work-related stressors, there are various personal stressors or individual factors associated with stress among the police personnel. According to a study by Bano (2011), lack of time with family, negative public image, and low salary emerged as some of the primary causes of stress among police officers. Ideally, due to the nature of their work, police officers are sometimes forced to go on extended periods without seeing or interacting with their family. Other times, they are forced to spend limited time with their spouses and children, which is likely to weigh down on their emotional well-being. The public has also been influenced to view the police force in a bad image. Knowing that people despise you because of your occupation can be stressing to an officer. Along with that, despite the risks involved in the work of police officers, they receive low salaries as compared to the majority of the government employees. Majority of them are forced to on second jobs to supplement their income, which can cause increased fatigue and stress. Police officers also work with people with high levels of stress, which can affect their emotional state. The National Institute of Justice also notes that financial problems and health problems are part of the individual factors likely to cause stress among police officers (“Causes of officer stress and fatigue,” 2012).
Impact of stress on Police Officers
Stress within the organizational setting has been linked with reduced morale and productivity, lack of job satisfaction, as well as high employee turnover. Police officers are expected to work in unpredictable, dangerous, and high-risk settings, where they are likely to experience elevated levels of stress. Performing under stress is challenging, and affects the performance of the officers. Although the officers have accepted stress as a fundamental component of their profession and work environment, they are at a higher risk of having impaired cognitive and perpetual motor performance (Hope, 2016). For instance, research indicates that anxiety among police officers is likely to affect their shooting performance including reduced shooting accuracy and or shooting from a greater distance from the target. Additionally, as Wojciechowska and Piotrowski highlighted, other consequences associated with occupational stress include behavioral disorders, family dysfunctions, alcoholism, and sometimes suicide. More specifically, elevated levels of stress are likely to lead to PTSD and when combined alcohol consumption it becomes a major factor that increases the risk of suicide among officers. Among the organizational effects of stress, including work burnout, reduced job satisfaction, and decreased productivity. Visible impacts range from lateness when reporting for duty, reduced efficiency, and reluctance to take responsibilities among others. When exposed to elevated levels of stress, the officers may choose to leave their jobs and pursue other careers leading to police officer job turnover.
Managing stress in Law Enforcement
The relationship between stress and law enforcement has long been established. However, it is less what the management and supervisors are doing to help officers deal with the stress that comes along with their job. Based on stressors inherent to policing, we identify supervisory and managerial efforts that can help officers alleviate the stressors as well as the role of the officers in the process. Virtually, the current climate around law enforcement has put the police officers under more scrutiny than ever before, and with the increased scrutiny and stressors, police officers are likely to experience elevated levels of stress. Unfortunately, there are no departmental mandates to assist officers when experiencing increased stress. In fact, according to the National Institute of Justice most departments have an unspoken code of silence on police work strain and stress (“Preventing office fatigue”). For majority of the officers, the police culture appears to have accepted fatigue as part of their job. Additionally, supervisors and managers do not understand the relationship between overtime and work-related injuries. Many officers are also not willing to talk about their health because overtime gives them the extra income. Thus, police officers are left to advocate for themselves to get help for their condition. Unfortunately, because they cannot control the source of their stress, most of them choose to use either adaptive or maladaptive mechanisms. As Maran, Veratto, and Zedda note (2015), one of the popular maladaptive mechanisms is increased use of alcohol and abuse. However, although alcohol is accepted as coping mechanism it has the potential to elevate the rates of suicide among police officers. As a way to help the officers cope with stress, the National Institute of Justice recommends encouraging officers to take time off from work, avoid mandatory working hours, discourage officers from taking extra jobs, create schedules that reduce shift rotation, and use technology to reduce overtime.
Consequently, based on the stressors, supervisory support is necessary to the organization. According to Claudia, Andrew, & Fekedulegn (2015), most officers have strained relationships with supervisors and coworkers. By simply been able to interact with their colleagues and discuss with their supervisors on ways to deal with stress can help manage their situations. For instance, supervisors can share their experience about their stress incidents and elaborate on ways they dealt with it to help new officers cope with their stress. Doing this would provide informal stress management by involving everyone to discuss daily interactions. Departmental meetings and group talks can help mend the relationship between officers and administration. Along with that, the police force should consider including a mentor program can help academy cadets to understand the ropes stress related to work life. More training to help the officers’ deal understand the signs of stress, its effects, and ways to deal with it will prepare the officers for when they face stress in their working life (Maran, Veratto, & Zedda, 2015). Along with that, the police departments should eliminate unfairness at the workplace and reward officers based on merit and not on nepotism and favoritism.
Overall, law enforcement is one of the most stressful jobs in the globe. Several factors are associated with stress among police officers. The stressors range from occupational, organizational, external, to personal stressors. Stress affects officers in different ways such as reduced productivity, reduced job satisfaction, and health. It is thus important to come up with departmental strategies to help police officers manage stress. Some of the methods include taking off from work, avoiding mandatory overtime, not taking on second jobs among others. The seniors should also consider finding ways to interact with officers through departmental meetings, group talks as a formal way of dealing with stress.
“Causes of officer stress and fatigue.” (2012). National Institute of Justice. Retrieved from: https://www.nij.gov/topics/law-enforcement/officer-safety/stress-fatigue/Pages/causes.aspx
“Preventing office fatigue.” (2012). National Institute of Justice. Retrieved from: https://www.nij.gov/topics/law-enforcement/officer-safety/stress-fatigue/Pages/preventing.aspx
Avdija, A. S. (2014). Stress and law enforcers: testing the relationship between law enforcement work stressors and health-related issues. Health Psychology and Behavioral Medicine, 2(1), 100-110.
Bano, B. (2014). Job Stress among Police Personnel. International Conference on Economics and Finance Research, 4, 290-293
Claudia C. M,. Andrew, M. E, Fekedulegn, M., Gu, J. K., Hartley, T. A., Luenda, E. C Charles, Violanti, J. M., & Burchfiel, C. M. (2015). Shift Work and Occupational Stress in Police Officers. Safety and Health at Work, 6(1), 25-29.
Hope, L. (2016). Evaluating the Effects of Stress and Fatigue on Police Officer Response and Recall: A Challenge for Research, Training, Practice and Policy. Journal of Applied Research in Memory and Cognition, 5(3), 239-245.
Jaramillo, F., Nixon, R., & Sams, D. (2005). The effect of law enforcement stress on organizational commitment. Policing: An International Journal of Police Strategies & Management, 28(2), 32 – 336
Kumar V., & Kamalanabhan, T. J. (2014). Sources of Stress among Police Officials: A Qualitative Investigation. IMJ, 6(1), 79-89.
Maran, D. A., Veratto, A., Zedda, M., Ieraci, V. (2015). Occupational stress, anxiety, and coping strategies in police officers. Occupational medicine, 65, 466 – 473.Wojciechowska, B. P., & Piotrowski, A. (2016). Sources, Consequences and Methods of Coping with Stress in Police Officers. Journal of Alcoholism & Drug Dependence, 4(4), 1-5
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