Occupational Stress in Law Enforcement & Intervention Strategies
The occupation of a police officer is commonly referred to as one of the most stressful occupations. Causes of stress for police officers can be linked to the organizational structure and the demands of the profession to include shift work, overtime, and years of service. The rigid nature of the organization has been referred to as one of the primary sources of stress for law enforcement. In addition to the stress of the organizational structure, police encounter the threat of violent criminals and disturbing crime scenes as a part of routine daily possibilities.
Potential causes of stress for correctional staff are similar to the stress that police officers endure. Stress is derived from internal and external sources to include, prison/jail organizational structure, nature of work-supervision of the inmate population, overtime, shift work, length of time on the job, privacy/safety concerns, threats of inmate violence/actual inmate violence, inmate demands/manipulations, co-workers, specific post or assignments, poor public image, and low pay.
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Correctional officers and police officers had the highest rates of non-fatal violent incidents at work between 1990-1995 (Finn, p. , 2001). Research regarding causes of stress for law enforcement was inconsistent when attempting to determine the highest rates of stress. Areas of concern for both correctional and police officers that experience work-related stress span from work-related effects to the effects on the employees personal life. Officers can suffer physical ailments as a result of work-related stress that include heart disease, high blood pressure, and eating disorders, etc.
Studies have shown that disability of officers has been linked to stress related causes. Additional areas of concern are staff burnout, personal and family relationships that include the displacement of frustration onto family/friends and poor work performance which ultimately compromises institutional safety and creates stress for co-workers. One of the most significant causes of stress in law enforcement is critical incidents and the impact of critical incident stress in law enforcement.
A critical incident can be defined as “any situation in which an officer’s expectations of personal infallibility suddenly become tempered by imperfection and crude reality” (Kureczka, 1996). Critical Incidents in law enforcement are loosely defined because the nature of the incidents can affect officers differently. Examples of critical incidents in law enforcement include line of duty death, serious injury of a co-worker, officer involved shooting, traumatic death of a child, hostage and riot situations. Critical Incident Stress can lead to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
Four to ten percent of individuals who experience a critical incident will develop PTSD. Research shows that 87% of all emergency workers experience the effects of critical incident stress (Kureczka,1996). Stressors can be multiplied by compounding events (i. e. death of a suspect and injury to the officer). The effects of a critical incident affect the officer physically, emotionally and cognitively. Physical affects (effects) can range from headaches, muscle aches, sleep disturbance, decreased sexual activity, decreased appetite, and impotence.
Emotional affects include anxiety, fear, guilt, sadness, anger, irritability, withdrawal and a sense of feeling lost. Cognitive affects include flashbacks, repeated visions of the incident, nightmares, slowed thinking, difficulty in decision making, disorientation, memory lapse, and the lack the ability to concentrate. Intervention strategies include a variety of options that have been implemented in law enforcement over the past twenty years. Some intervention programs are specific to the everyday stressors of the profession while others are more concentrated to areas involving critical incidents.
The development and establishment of stress programs or Employee Assistance Programs are types of intervention programs available. Programs vary by department and in levels of perceived success. Possible program components include trained correctional staff assisting other correctional staff that have experienced a critical incident at work, implementation of a counseling team, implementation of a stress unit, critical incident debriefing, increased communication with employees, wellness programs, staff involvement in policy making and training & education programs.
The benefits of the implementation of programs to help employees deal with stress include, reduction of overtime costs incurred due to sick time usage, reduction in staff turnover rates, enhanced staff morale coupled with improved job performance, increased institutional and officer safety, improved relations with the union, staff feeling that management/administrators value them as individuals. The role of the administration in providing support to officers’ both pre and post critical incidents has a tremendous The administration’s role in combatting critical incident stress is mutually beneficial to the employee and the agency.
The agency impact is on the organizational structure (i. e. other officers, the department, the public, and families) as a whole as well as budgetary impact that affects all areas (retention, training, etc. ). When compared to the cost of intervention, it is financially more beneficial to the organization to spend money on intervention which in turn also benefits the entire organizational structure. . Intervention strategies specific to critical incidents include counseling for employees with counselors that have a thorough understanding f the type of work of law enforcement, as well as the availability of peer support officers that are specially trained to recognize problems and make referrals. The availability of pre-incident stress education and stress management training for new recruits and seasoned employees throughout employment allows employees who experience critical incident stress to recognize the signs and seek help. Additional orientations for families also provides for information on stress in law enforcement to be communicated to prepare families for what to expect in the event that an incident occurs.
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