Building Police Officer Psychological Capital to Mitigate Stress

By Eric Murray, Ed.D.

A stock image of police crime scene tape and police lights.

Law enforcement officers honor the pivotal role they have in preserving law and order in the communities they serve, but policing is one of the most stressful occupations in the United States and around the world.1 Police stress represents an imbalance between what is required of officers and what they are capable of giving, under conditions where failure may have dire consequences.2

One researcher calls stress an “organism’s response to any demand placed on it.”3 Stressors are physical or psychological stimuli that impact one’s state of arousal. They might be long-term states, like those during  illnesses or financial problems, or short-term states resulting from individual incidents, such as upsetting conversations or specific traumatic events. While some positive stressors exist, more often people see them as threatening, frustrating, or conflicting, which leads to anxiety.4

People experience highly personalized reactions to stressors, and responses depend on the meaning individuals attribute to them.5 Thus, the way different police officers interpret, for example, a stressful situation will determine the severity of their reactions.6

Small amounts of stress may prove desirable, beneficial, and even healthy.7 Eustress occurs when a person perceives a stressor as positive—for example, a pregnancy or job promotion. Alternately, distress is a negative, or “bad,” stress, such as a fight with a spouse or a death in the family. Positive adaptation, an often-overlooked side of stress, can lead to motivation and challenge instead of anxiety, creating a feeling of eustress or euphoria.8 However, when demands exceed a person’s capabilities, stress can threaten quality of life and lead to bodily harm.9

Lieutenant Eric Murray of the Connecticut State Police.

Dr. Murray is a lieutenant with the Connecticut State Police.

Stress Management Strategies

Police leaders should consider a multipronged approach to organizational stress management—taking action before, during, and after stressful incidents or traumatic events.

Pretraumatic

One preventative strategy involves exposing new police recruits to high-stress situations. This inoculates them to stress under controlled conditions. Instructors can increase stress levels as recruits master task proficiency. This stress inoculation tactic uses a blend of cognitive, behavioral, and humanistic training techniques to target officer stressors. At the same time, it trains officers to work through them.

Training programs should include coping methods, such as problem-solving, autogenic or applied relaxation, and breathing retraining. Other potential lessons include plans for controlling or better managing intense emotions, reducing physiological activation, and preventing the emergence of dissociative reactions at the time of the trauma.


One positive psychological resource that has received little attention in leadership research is the concept of mindfulness, which promotes a direct consciousness of bodily movement, sensations, and surroundings.10 Specifically, a mindful person maintains heightened awareness of the present reality and gives close attention to living in the moment.11 This induces positive psychological and behavioral responses.12

The surge of clinical research regarding mindfulness attests to its beneficial psychological properties, providing evidence of its positive relationship with well-being and stress reduction.13 Despite the current popularity in the clinical literature, mindfulness has yet to find an avenue as a standardized practice within preventive stress interventions designed for pretraumatic officer or recruit training.

Peritraumatic

Peritraumatic strategies exist to reduce the negative impact of trauma-related stress during a traumatic incident. They help officers maintain operational functionality. For instance, first responders, military personnel, and athletes often use slow breathing to focus, gain control, and manage stress.

Slow breathing has a balancing effect on the autonomic nervous system through enhanced parasympathetic activation.14 It also enhances vagal activity, leading to reduced psychophysiological arousal and decreased sympathetic activity and stress responses. The practice has been associated with reduced PTSD symptom severity.15

Combat Breathing

Slow, deliberate combat breathing techniques help officers maintain psychomotor functionality during stressful events.

  1. Breathe in through the nose slowly and deliberately for 4 seconds.
  2. Hold the breath for 4 seconds.
  3. Exhale slowly and deliberately for 4 seconds.
  4. Hold the empty breath for 4 seconds.
  5. Repeat.
Source: Tricia Kennedy, “How Combat Breathing Saved My Life,” Police, March 9, 2011, accessed July 8, 2019, https://www.policemag.com/373760/how-combat-breathing-saved-my-life.

“Police leaders should consider a multipronged approach to organizational stress management—taking action before, during, and after stressful incidents or traumatic events.”

Posttraumatic

Often, debriefings and other short-term interventions help but do not completely eliminate the impact of stressful incidents.16 In the days following a traumatic event, leaders should provide psychological first aid by—

  1. providing nonintrusive, practical care and support;
  2. assessing officers’ needs and concerns;
  3. listening, but not pressuring officers to talk;
  4. comforting officers and helping them feel calm;
  5. helping connect officers to information, services, and social support;
  6. and protecting officers from further harm.17

Although many police organizations make counseling available for officers following critical incidents, the most commonly used intervention is a one-time critical incident stress debriefing (CISD). Subsequent efforts to check in with those officers seeking help in the days following a stressful incident could provide leaders an early awareness that PTSD symptoms might appear in the following weeks or months.18

The use of mindfulness strategies helps reduce the negative effects of PTSD.19 Because early intervention is critical in reducing the development of PTSD and symptoms are strongly correlated with the degree of distress immediately after trauma, mind-body interventions may provide an effective nonpharmacological treatment for individuals with PTSD symptoms.20

Psychological debriefing has become the norm for trauma intervention in police work. Although it has been successful in many cases, it is advisable to consider alternative, evidence-based responses to critical incidents. Important relationships exist between social support and PTSD symptomatology, and law enforcement agencies should incorporate officers’ support systems—for example, their families—into response protocols.21 Support for officers must be ongoing or long-term; research reveals that short-term debriefing is not effective.22

Psychological Capital

Increasing police officers’ psychological capital (PsyCap) has a positive impact on their overall well-being and reduces the adverse impact of stress.23

HERO Within

PsyCap is an individual’s positive psychological state of development, characterized by perseverance toward goals. This includes, when necessary, redirecting paths to goals (hope), having confidence (efficacy), bouncing back from adversity (resilience), and making positive attributions and holding positive future expectations (optimism).

These core constructs make up PsyCap, and researchers refer to them as the HERO within.24 Together, they offer a viable set of resources and mechanisms that promote well-being and have a strong positive relationship with desirable attitudes, behaviors, and performance. Such domains offer increased psychological well-being for employees exhibiting cynicism, intent to quit, and other counterproductive behaviors—and more important, facing and recovering from stressful life events.25

Researchers propose that PsyCap triggers cognitive, affective, conative, and social mechanisms, leading to happiness and well-being.26

Based on positive psychology research through the years, “positive interpretations and appraisals boost effort, motivation and perseverance.”27 The affective mechanism occurs through the wide range of positive states generated by PsyCap, which can be instrumental in broadening one’s thought-action repertoires and building physical, psychological, and social resources.

PsyCap promotes the conative mechanism through agentic thinking and effective goal pursuit, which leads to intentional actions and a sense of control.28 Lastly, a “social mechanism can occur through the increased attraction, improved relationships, and enriched networks and connections that positivity in general can bring about.”29

Development

The theoretical mechanisms underlying PsyCap can help explain employees in today’s workplace, as well as lead to their greater happiness and improved well-being. Thus, these concepts offer an appropriate lens for the examination of law enforcement leaders.30

Police leaders can create hope in the workforce by establishing goal-oriented pathways through a clearly defined mission statement, career development planning, strategic and succession planning, and a clear direction for a future state. Officers should learn the concepts of SMART goal setting so they can learn to be self-guided and self-directed.

SMART Goal Setting

S – Specific

A specific goal helps maintain focus and confirm exactly what will be accomplished.

Improve community relations.
Implement a Cops and Coffee community event.

M – Measurable

A measurable goal is more tangible and promotes continued motivation because it allows progress tracking.

Raise money for a new community outreach program.
Raise $50,000 for a new community outreach program.

A – Attainable

An attainable goal means stakeholders have the resources and capacity to accomplish it, instead of getting discouraged and abandoning it.

Reduce departmental spending by 60 percent.
Reduce departmental spending by 5 percent.

R – Relevant

A relevant goal ensures time is not spent pursuing something that does not align with other objectives or that someone else would be better suited to do.

Research new developments in healthcare.
Research new technology applicable to policing.

T – Time Bound

A time-bound goal holds participants accountable to complete it by a specific deadline, instead of getting distracted by other tasks.

Create new officer training curriculum.
Create new officer training curriculum by January 15th.

Source: “SMART Goals,” Mind Tools, accessed July 16, 2019, https://www.mindtools.com/pages/article/smart-goals.htm; and University of California, SMART Goals: A How to Guide, 2016, accessed July 16, 2019, https://www.ucop.edu/local-human-resources/_files/performance-appraisal/How%20to%20write%20SMART%20Goals%20v2.pdf.

“Support for officers must be ongoing or long-term; research reveals that short-term debriefing is not effective.”

Increased training opportunities, coaching and mentoring, and after-action reviews conducted to improve future performance enhance efficacy. Individuals build resilience through stress inoculation training, adoption of multifaceted wellness programs, spirituality, peer support initiatives, and strong social support systems. Finally, recognizing and rewarding positive behaviors, addressing the organizational “spirit snipers,” and immediately correcting toxicity improves optimism.

Conclusion

Law enforcement leaders must be proactive in implementing stress management strategies. They can achieve this through multidimensional and multipronged methods. Such an approach includes giving officers training and resources before, during, and after an incident.31 Agencies should analyze the current organizational, interpersonal, and individual system strategies (policies, procedures, and practices) that lend to building organizational and individual officer psychological capital.

By focusing on strategies to develop PsyCap (hope, efficacy, resiliency, and optimism), leaders can provide improved methods to bolster officer well-being, mitigate the adverse impact of stress, and nurture the HERO within.

“Law enforcement leaders must be proactive in implementing stress management strategies.”

Lieutenant Murray can be reached at sptu@att.net.


Endnotes

1 Leanor Boulin Johnson, “Job Strain Among Police Officers: Gender Comparisons,” abstract, Police Studies 14, no. 1 (Spring 1991): 12-16, accessed June 12, 2019, https://www.ncjrs.gov/app/publications/abstract.aspx?id=130311.
2 Bernie L. Patterson, “Job Experience and Perceived Job Stress Among Police, Correctional and Probation/Parole Officers,” abstract, Criminal Justice and Behavior 19, no. 3 (September 1992): 260-286, accessed June 12, 2019, https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/10.1177/0093854892019003004.
3 Hans Selye, “The General Adaptation Syn­drome and the Diseases of Adaptation,” abstract, Jour­nal of Clinical Endocrinology 6, no. 2 (February 1946): 117-230, accessed June 12, 2019, https://doi.org/10.1210/jcem-6-2-117.
4 Ibid.
5 Mark Chapin et al., “Training Police Leadership to Recognize and Address Operational Stress,” Police Quarterly 11, no. 3 (September 2008): 338-352, accessed June 12, 2019, https://www.researchgate.net/publication/240282089_Training_Police_Leadership_to_Recognize_and_Address_Operational_Stress; and Tanja Zoellner and Andreas Maercker, “Posttraumatic Growth in Clinical Psychology—A Critical Review and Introduction of a Two-Component Model,” abstract, Clinical Psychology Review 26, no. 5 (September 2006): 626-653, accessed June 13, 2019, https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0272735806000092?via%3Dihub.
6 George S. Everly, “Familial Psychotraumatology: An Analysis of the Impact of Traumatic Stress upon the Law Enforcement Family via Destruction of the Familial Weltanschauung,” in Law Enforcement Families: Issues and Answers, ed. James T. Reese and Ellen Scrivner (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1994), 177-184, accessed June 13, 2019, https://www.ncjrs.gov/App/Publications/abstract.aspx?ID=168113.
7 Selye, “Police Stress.”
8 Chris Gibbons, “Stress, Positive Psychology and the National Student Survey,” Psychology Teaching Review 18, no. 2 (Autumn 2012): 22-30, accessed June 13, 2019, https://www.researchgate.net/publication/329738158_Gibbons_C_2012_Stress_positive_psychology_and_the_National_Student_Survey_Psychology_Teaching_Review_Vol_18_2_22-30; and Hans Selye, Stress Without Distress (Philadelphia, PA: Lippincott, 1974).
9 Mark Le Fevre, Gregory S. Kolt, and Jonathan Matheny, “Eustress, Distress and Their Interpretation in Primary and Secondary Occupational Stress Management Interventions: Which Way First?” abstract, Journal of Managerial Psychology 21, no. 6 (2006): 547-565, accessed June 13, 2019, https://doi.org/10.1108/02683940610684391.
10 Kirk Warren Brown and Richard M. Ryan, “The Benefits of Being Present: Mindfulness and Its Role in Psychological Wellbeing,” abstract, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 84, no. 4 (April 2003): 822-848, accessed June 13, 2019, https://doi.org/10.1037/0022-3514.84.4.822; and Kirk Warren Brown, Richard M. Ryan, and J. David Creswell, “Mindfulness: Theoretical Foundations and Evidence for Its Salutary Effects,” abstract, Psychological Inquiry 18, no. 4 (December 2007): 211-237, accessed June 13, 2019, https://doi.org/10.1080/10478400701598298.
11 Maree Roche, Jarrod M. Haar, and Fred Luthans, “The Role of Mindfulness and Psychological Capital on the Well-Being of Organizational Leaders,” abstract, Journal of Occupational and Organizational Psychology 19, no. 4 (October 2014): 476-489, accessed June 13, 2019, https://doi.org/10.1037/a0037183.
12 Brown, Ryan, and Creswell, “Mindfulness: Theoretical Foundations”; and Sang Hwan Kim et al., “PTSD Symptom Reduction with Mindfulness-Based Stretching and Deep Breathing Exercise: Randomized Controlled Clinical Trial of Efficacy,” The Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism 98, no. 7 (July 2013): 2984-2992, accessed June 13, 2019, https://doi.org/10.1210/jc.2012-3742.
13 Kim et al., “PTSD Symptom Reduction”; and Shauna L. Shapiro et al., “Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction for Health Care Professionals: Results from a Randomized Trial,” abstract, International Journal of Stress Management 12, no. 2 (May 2005): 164-176, accessed June 13, 2019, https://doi.org/10.1037/1072-5245.12.2.164.
14 Kim et al., “PTSD Symptom Reduction”; APA Dictionary of Psychology, s.v. “autonomic nervous system (ANS),” accessed July 24, 2019, https://dictionary.apa.org/autonomic-nervous-system; and APA Dictionary of Psychology, s.v. “parasympathetic nervous system,” accessed July 24, 2019, https://dictionary.apa.org/parasympathetic-nervous-system.
15 Rod K. Dishman et al., “Heart Rate Variability, Trait Anxiety, and Perceived Stress Among Physically Fit Men and Women,” abstract, International Journal of Psychophysiology 37, no. 2, 121-133, accessed June 13, 2019, https://doi.org/10.1016/s0167-8760(00)00085-4; Hagit Cohen et al., “Analysis of Heart Rate Variability in Posttraumatic Stress Disorder Patients in Response to a Trauma-Related Reminder,” abstract, Biological Psychiatry 44, no. 10 (November 1998): 1054-1059, accessed June 13, 2019, https://doi.org/doi:10.1016/s0006-3223(97)00475-7; APA Dictionary of Psychology, s.v. “vagal tone,” accessed July 24, 2019, https://dictionary.apa.org/vagal-tone; APA Dictionary of Psychology, s.v. “psychophysiology,” accessed July 24, 2019, https://dictionary.apa.org/psychophysiology; APA Dictionary of Psychology, s.v. “physiological arousal,” accessed July 24, 2019, https://dictionary.apa.org/physiological-arousal; and APA Dictionary of Psychology, s.v. “sympathetic nervous system,” accessed July 24, 2019, https://dictionary.apa.org/sympathetic-nervous-system.
16 John M. Violanti, “The Police: Perspectives on Trauma and Resiliency,” abstract, Traumatology 12, no. 3 (September 2006): 167-169, accessed June 13, 2019, https://psycnet.apa.org/doiLanding?doi=10.1177%2F1534765606296998.
17 World Health Organization, Psychological First Aid: Supporting People Following Crisis Events, accessed September 9, 2019, https://www.who.int/mental_health/emergencies/PFA_pager.pdf?ua=1.
18 Ibid.
19 Kim et al., “PTSD Symptom Reduction.”
20 Ibid.
21 Ellen Kirschman, I Love a Cop: What Police Families Need to Know, rev. ed. (New York: Guilford Press, 2006); and Charles R. Marmar et al., “Predictors of Posttraumatic Stress in Police Officers and Other First Responders,” abstract, Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences 1071, no. 1 (July 2006): 1-18, accessed June 13, 2019, https://doi.org/10.1196/annals.1364.001.
22 Arnold A.P. van Emmerik et al., “Single Session Debriefing After Psychological Trauma: A Meta-Analysis,” abstract, The Lancet 360, no. 9335 (September 2002): 766-771, accessed June 13, 2019, https://www.thelancet.com/journals/lancet/article/PIIS0140-6736(02)09897-5/fulltext.
23 Fred O. Walumbwa et al., “An Investigation of the Relationship Among Leader and Follower Psychological Capital, Service Climate, and Job Performance,” abstract, Personnel Psychology 63, no. 4 (2010): 937-963, accessed September 9, 2019, https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1744-6570.2010.01193.x.
24 James B. Avey, Fred Luthans, and Carolyn M. Youssef, “The Additive Value of Positive Psychological Capital in Predicting Work Attitudes and Behaviors,” abstract, Journal of Management 36 no. 2 (March 2010): 430-452, accessed June 13, 2019, https://doi.org/10.1177%2F0149206308329961; Avey, Luthans, and Youssef, “Additive Value”; and Fred Luthans et al., “Positive Psychological Capital: Measurement and Relationship with Performance and Satisfaction,” abstract, Personnel Psychology 60, no. 3 (2007): 541-572, accessed September 9, 2019, https://www.researchgate.net/publication/227636268_Positive_Psychological_Capital_Measurement_and_Relationship_with_Performance_and_Satisfaction.
25 Avey, Luthans, and Youssef, “Additive Value.”
26 Carolyn M. Youssef and Fred Luthans, “Developing Psychological Capital in Organizations: Cognitive, Affective, Conative, and Social Contributions of Happiness,” in Oxford Handbook of Happiness, ed. Susan A. David, Ilona Boniwell, and Amanda Conley Ayers (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2013), 751-766.
27 Carolyn M. Youssef-Morgan and Fred Luthans, “Psychological Capital and Well-Being,” abstract, Stress & Health 31, no. 3 (August 2015): 184, accessed June 13, 2019, https://doi.org/10.1002/smi.2623.
28 Ibid.; Albert Bandura, “Social Cognitive Theory: An Agentic Perspective,” abstract, Annual Review of Psychology 52 (February 2001): 1-26, accessed June 13, 2019, https://www.annualreviews.org/doi/abs/10.1146/annurev.psych.52.1.1; Albert Bandura, “An Agentic Perspective on Positive Psychology,” abstract, in Positive Psychology: Exploring the Best in People, ed. Shane J. Lopez (Westport, CT: Greenwood, 2008), 167-196, accessed July 25, 2019, https://psycnet.apa.org/record/2008-13953-009; and Albert Bandura, “On the Functional Properties of Perceived Self-Efficacy Revisited,” Journal of Management 38, no. 1, 9-44, accessed June 13, 2019, https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/10.1177/0149206311410606.
29 Youssef-Morgan and Luthans, “Psychological Capital and Well-Being,” 184.
30 Ibid.
31 Eric Murray, “Psychological Capital: Law Enforcement Leadership Strategies to Mitigate Traumatic Incident Stress Among Police Officers” (Ed.D. diss., University of Hartford, 2019).