The Employee Wellness Plan
A Strategy for Fighting the “Evil from Within”
By Mark E. McDonough
As a profession, law enforcement historically has focused on safety strategies that protect officers during their policing duties (e.g., tactical skills, pursuit driving, firearms training, and use-of-force scenarios). Regrettably, agency administrators sometimes do not take into account the daily toll this profession has on those sworn to serve and protect our communities.
Within law enforcement leadership, not much attention has focused on the full spectrum of officer wellness. Agency administrators need to further address the realities of police stress and burnout as they impact the individual as a whole. Otherwise, the profession risks losing officers to cynicism, apathy, chemical dependencies, unhealthy lifestyle choices, and, perhaps, even suicide.
The Need for a Plan
One tactic to remedy some of these issues is the adoption of an employee wellness plan (EWP). If developed and implemented properly, an EWP improves recruitment and retention, enhances job satisfaction, and reduces employee absenteeism.
With all of the resources that agencies devote to improving officers’ training, knowledge, experiences, and technology, why should departments not strive to enhance the welfare of their employees—and greatest assets? Today’s law enforcement leaders must provide their personnel with the means to enable them to live full, active, productive, and healthy lives. An EWP functions as one such tool.
Modern police leaders must balance their duties of providing for individual officers’ wellness and helping them meet the goals and expectations of the agency. These interests do not have to conflict. When police leaders enhance the vitality of their officers, they improve the organization as a whole. A plan that augments the long-term wellness of agency members allows for increased job satisfaction, productivity, and overall health of the organization. An EWP provides employees the tools they need to address their physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual health and well-being.
An EWP should encompass an officer’s entire career: recruitment, retention, and retirement. The plan must adhere to the current culture of the agency and address the local needs and resources available. Through course work, support networks, and practical recommendations from fellow officers, employees learn numerous wellness techniques to apply to their daily lives. This combination of theoretical and tactical information will help employees improve their personal well-being and maximize their productivity. Further, it will boost the entire agency’s morale.
Behavioral science experts who research officer wellness note four specific dimensions—mental, emotional, physical, and spiritual—that comprise the whole person. One researcher explains the whole person as “where the health of the human entity is comprised of the integration, balance, and harmony of one’s mental, physical, emotional, and spiritual components.”1 Just as the human body requires nourishment from nutritious foods, adequate exercise, and rest, the inner self needs nourishment so it, too, will remain healthy. When individuals neglect any one of these whole-person components, their health and well-being suffer.
Sergeant McDonough serves with the Bowling Green, Ohio, Police Department.
As leading experts research how this topic relates to police officers, their findings are gaining notoriety throughout the law enforcement community. Spirituality in law enforcement relates to “a sense of meaning and purpose larger than the instrumental duties of law enforcement, which affects the most critical aspects of practice, performance, vitality, and longevity in the profession. It energizes the ethics of practice, resulting in exemplary (efficient and effective) performance.”2
Spirituality, as described here, does not imply religious beliefs, but, rather, interrelates with the other dimensions listed above. Incorporating spirituality into the workplace comprises an essential component of an EWP. Law enforcement leaders must recognize that every employee has a human spirit not necessarily associated with religion or religiosity. Spirituality impacts how individuals relate to and interact with others on a daily basis, which significantly influences an employee’s happiness and well-being.
Many aspects of police work leave officers vulnerable to stressors that affect their personal and professional lives. These toxic stressors, which many experts on workplace spirituality refer to as “evils,” include all of the negative influences that employees face on a daily basis. This connotation of evil, like spirituality, does not imply a religious element, but describes the negative influences that can cause employees to make poor decisions in their personal and professional lives. This often leads to increases in citizen complaints, failed marriages, substance abuse, excessive use of sick leave, and officer suicide.
An effective law enforcement agency seeks to improve the quality of life for its citizens and to provide the necessary services that the community identifies as important. To meet mission requirements, police leadership must provide the necessary tools for employees to effectively and efficiently complete their jobs. Full attention to officers’ wellness comprises a crucial component of this duty.
To combat the stressors of the law enforcement profession, an effective EWP provides officers with the tools to protect their personal well-being even with repeated exposure to violence and trauma. An EWP teaches officers to embrace a holistic approach to wellness, both on and off duty.
In an effort to maximize employee performance, a strong wellness program should embrace the input of local government officials, union members, and police administrators. Collaborating with police chaplains, medical facilities, psychological counseling services, and substance abuse rehabilitation programs increases the chances for successful implementation. As police leaders begin to embrace this philosophy of the whole person, the individual employee and community reap great benefits.
- Employees will receive training in the whole person concept and realize that the agency’s leadership holds a vested interest in their personal and professional lives.
- Personnel will understand better the physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual dimensions that influence their lives, helping them to make healthier lifestyle choices.
- Officers may improve their physical health, which reduces their use of sick leave and risk of disease.
- Personnel will improve how they react to the daily stressors in the workplace, resulting in fewer citizen complaints and internal affairs investigations.
- Employees may work more efficiently and productively.
- The agency will accomplish its mission more effectively.
An effective EWP must address all four dimensions of the whole person. Additionally, the program should not be limited to any one phase of an officers’ training. Rather, an EWP should span officers’ entire careers from recruitment through retirement.
Spirituality in Law Enforcement
- Upon request, FBI Academy instructors will provide initial training in these topics. Administrators can encourage chiefs of police, sheriffs, police command staffs, supervisors, and their employees from around the region to attend. Training requests should be directed to the FBI Behavioral Science Unit (BSU), FBI Academy, Quantico, VA.
- Agencies should develop instructors, both internally and externally, to take advantage of available local resources (e.g., law enforcement professionals, counselors, and medical workers) to provide assistance and direction for the annual EWP training courses.
- Law enforcement administrators should invite and encourage the local faith community and counseling services to provide information and assistance to employees and families, and they should establish avenues to access these programs.
- Agencies can invite and encourage family members of personnel to participate in employee wellness activities when appropriate.
“If developed and implemented properly, an EWP improves recruitment and retention, enhances job satisfaction, and reduces employee absenteeism.”
Law enforcement administrators should create a wellness guide that prepares recruits for the violence and other traumatic events that they might witness on a daily basis. This material should address the whole person wellness philosophy, as well as the dangers of workplace stressors and their relationship to the law enforcement community. It should explain, in detail, the long-term, daily exposure to these toxins in police work and how they can lead to burnout and other adverse effects. Additionally, the guide should offer strategies to counter the negative influences pervading police ranks and promote healthy lifestyle choices, such as proper fitness and nutrition.
To create this material, agencies can seek assistance from police chaplaincy programs, human resource departments, civil service/merit commissions, counseling services, local universities’ psychological services departments, and other local agencies. The guide also should instruct officers how to access these services if needed. The wellness guide should be available to prospective recruits during the application phase, along with all other related testing materials, and current employees should be able to access the guide as well.
Upon graduating from the police academy and entering a field training program, new officers should continue to receive instruction on EWP practices. This will supplement the information they learn from the wellness guide they receive during recruitment and ensure that they apply this training to their daily duties.
Field training instructors should provide officers with strategies to protect their physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual health. Essential topics for each category include the:
- importance of exercise, proper nutrition, and adequate rest for optimum physical health;
- risks of mental anguish, including anxiety and depression, among law enforcement officers, as well as access to local counseling services and peer support groups;
- physiology of normal emotional reactions to stressful situations and appropriate coping mechanisms; and
- toxic stressors inherent in the law enforcement profession and how to use spirituality to combat them and improve the whole person.
Active Duty Officers
An exhaustive EWP will continue to educate officers on these topics throughout their careers. As police accumulate years of experience in this stressful profession, wellness strategies become even more crucial to ensure personnel remain healthy—inside and out.
To protect officers’ well-being throughout their careers, administrators should implement a Personnel Early Warning System (PEWS). This system provides personnel of all ranks a channel through which to voice concerns for their colleagues. When management receives notice that an employee may demonstrate symptoms of stress and burnout, they can assess the situation and provide assistance if necessary. Programs, such as PEWS, lessen the risk that officers who suffer from work-related stress will resort to destructive behaviors that harm themselves and the entire department.
Additionally, to reinforce wellness strategies, employees should receive annual EWP in-service training to receive the most up-to-date information on these topics. To ensure the program remains relevant and engaging, administrators should encourage employees to offer suggestions for additions or deletions to the course content. Resources from pertinent outside agencies would augment further the training curriculum. Possible EWP training topics include suicide prevention; physical fitness and nutrition; substance abuse and its symptoms; maintenance of one’s personal and professional relationships; support following toxic encounters, such as child homicides; available counseling services or other wellness resources; and any additional areas of EWP training deemed appropriate.
Preretirement and Beyond
“A plan that augments the long-term wellness of agency members allows for increased job satisfaction, productivity, and overall health of the organization.”
Agency administrators must consider how to incorporate the EWP into the standard preretirement process for all employees. The detrimental impact of decades of law enforcement work will not disappear as soon as officers leave the department. If agencies fail to consider the future health and well-being of employees as they near the end of their careers, officers may continue to struggle with these symptoms as they adjust to retirement.
First, agencies should extend all EWP benefits, such as access to chaplains and counseling services, to retired employees. Former officers may benefit from these resources just as greatly, if not more so, than those who serve currently.
Also, administrators should create an Employee Wellness Program Network (EWPN) to help retiring officers remain connected to the department and their colleagues. Membership should represent both retired and active employees, and the network should act as a support mechanism for each group. The EWPN would bridge the gap between the retired and current members of the organization, keeping retired employees connected to the personnel and services of the agency. This continued relationship ensures that retirees do not become isolated from the support and resources that all officers—former and current—need to maintain their health and wellness.
Although the scope of an employee wellness plan is quite significant, the benefits can pay long-term dividends for employees, families, the organization, and the community. Employee vitality is essential to meet the agency’s mission; as such, spirituality, vitality, and wellness are paramount for an effective organization. A physically, emotionally, mentally, and spiritually healthy workforce offers the best opportunity for mission completion. When police leadership promotes healthy lifestyle decisions—and provides officers the necessary tools to make them—they help ensure the vitality of the employees and organization now and for years to come.
Most often, police leadership attends to the needs of officers as related to their physical survival. However, physical health alone does not protect officers from the ill effects of the law enforcement profession. Incorporating the remaining three components of health (mental, emotional, and spiritual) into an agency wellness plan provides the best strategy to keep a department’s most valuable asset—its employees—from developing habits that sabotage their ability to survive a career in law enforcement and beyond.
“A physically, emotionally, mentally, and spiritually healthy workforce offers the best opportunity for mission completion.”