Stress Reduction Programs for Police Officers: What Needs to Change
Help for officers dealing with on-the-job stress could ultimately improve relationships between law enforcement agencies and their communities
It’s no surprise that law enforcement is a high-risk, high-stress occupation. Exposure to violence and human suffering, as well aspects of the job itself, such as physical work demands and nonstandard schedules, are just a few of the stressors officers face every day. While these demands do not inevitably lead to negative outcomes, they can lead to stress, anxiety, and resulting health problems if officers lack sufficient support and resources.
Police work can have negative effects on officers’ physical health, mental health, and work/life issues, such as work/family conflict and problems in relationships. For law enforcement agencies, officer stress manifests as increased absenteeism, turnover, and declines in performance, including slower reaction time, poorer decision-making ability, and increases in complaints, policy violations, and misconduct allegations. Over time, stress can impact officers’ ability to protect the communities they serve, and can lead to increased tension between officers and community members.
Researchers and practitioners have made genuine attempts to identify ways of reducing officer stress, and some interventions have shown positive effects. Examples of such strategies include:
- Self-regulation skills training to reduce negative emotions, improve sleep, and increase the use of effective coping strategies
- Relaxation training to reduce stress and increase sleep quality
- Resilience training to reduce the impact of operational stress on health and behavioral outcomes
Despite these promising strategies, most research on intervention studies to reduce officer stress shows no, or very small, effects. This relative lack of success is a major public health issue; prolonged exposure to stress and trauma can have serious, and even life-threatening, consequences. It’s been estimated that at any given time, approximately 30 percent of police officers experience clinically significant post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) symptoms or meet the full diagnostic criteria for PTSD. Last year, more officers died by suicide than in the line of duty. To address this problem, we need to acknowledge the major limitations of existing research. For example:
- Existing research on the link between officer health and police performance fails to fully consider the complex nature of police performance
- Little research has explored how agency policies affect individual officer health
- Research has often taken a one-size-fits-all approach to managing officer stress. This fails to account for important factors that vary by agency, and even between officers in different roles within the same agency.
With funding from the Department of Justice, Office of Community Oriented Policing Services, RTI has conducted a comprehensive review of the literature. We recommend the following improvements to future research and practice on police officer stress reduction:
- Utilize a Total Worker Health® approach, which integrates occupational safety and health protection with health promotion to prevent worker injury and illness and advance worker health and well-being.
- Use experimental designs to better understand the relationships between police work and health, and officer well-being and agency outcomes.
- Examine health and wellness interventions developed outside of U.S. law enforcement. This includes policing research conducted in other countries, as well as occupational stress interventions conducted in the United States among different occupational groups.
- Develop "wise," scalable interventions. Hone in on the precise psychological processes that lead to behavior change to allow for brief but effective intervention programs.
- Improve measurement of key indicators. Use best practices on how information will be gathered, stored, and analyzed. Collect objective health, wellness, and performance data when possible, and use outside sources of information (such as data from community members, supervisors, peers, or spouses) when appropriate.
- Develop tailored interventions that account for the particular stressors officers experience in different regions, agencies, and roles. In addition, consider how officer characteristics, such as officer race/ethnicity, age, and gender, may impact the types and amount of stressors experienced.
Making these changes in research and practice will not be easy, but it is a necessary investment. The law enforcement profession deserves tailored, evidence-based approaches that incorporate police input on their needs and preferences. Managing officer stress facilitates better decision-making, fairer treatment, and improved relationships between officers and the community members they serve.