Police officers face an assortment of task, interpersonal and physical demands and stressors in their job that most people never encounter at work or in their personal lives. These demands and stressors take a physical and emotional toll that can cause burn out or more serious physical or psychological disturbances.
Task demands for police officers can create a state of input overload known as hyperstress. Often there are too many calls to be addressed with too little time. In these cases, not only is the quality of the time allotted to each case and therefore each case at risk, the emotional and physical state of the officer is at risk. In the case of investigators, they are faced with heavy caseloads for which they are expected to follow prescribed case management criteria. At the same time, they are under pressure from prosecutors who may be pressing that cases be completed, so that they can be brought to trial. Sleeplessness is often a result of hyperstress, as well as weight gain or loss and varying degrees of impairment of thought processes. Conversely, hypostress can result from input underloads for officers who work a third shift, when the numbers of calls are few or none. Individuals who experience hypostress are often restless and lackluster in their approach to life as a result.
Police officers are often forced to deal with individuals, within the public they serve, who have low opinions of police in general and may make their work or their personal lives difficult. Additionally, officers are never “off duty” in that people who know they are officers often bring their problems or complaints to them outside of work hours.
Sexual harassment has contributed to high stress levels in and resignations of female police officers. This harassment may take the form of unwelcome sexual advances or verbal and physical assaults.
Leadership styles are an interpersonal demand that everyone who works may face at one time or another. Leadership styles that are authoritarian (characteristic of police organizations) can be particularly stressful in organizations that attract college-educated personnel who are less likely to accept authoritarian rule.
Physical demands on police officers can include extreme environments, strenuous activities and contact with hazardous substances. While these demands can be found in other types of work, the police officer is exposed to an intensity of situations rarely experienced by those outside the profession. Death, extreme physical abuse and fear of the unknown can have long term affects on the physical and mental health of the police officer. Exposure to child abuse and domestic violence on a regular basis can take an emotional toll and the more horrific of these can remain with an officer forever.
Recognizing and understanding that these conditions exist and being watchful of the warning signs, is everyone’s responsibility within the organization. An over or under stressed police officer is more likely to make mistakes, overreact or act impulsively. While an occasional slip by the average person may just simply be a “bad moment,” in the job of a police officer that “bad moment” can mean someone’s life. Providing stress management programs and counseling are critical to the overall “health” of any police department.
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