Focus on Officer Wellness
Considerations for Officers and Their Families
By Tony Bisbee
Major strides have been made to combat the effects of first responder stress. Increased focus on the issue shows that both the immediate impact of a critical incident and the cumulative effects of long-term stress can negatively affect police officers’ personal and professional lives.
Alarmingly, one study showed officers’ life expectancy is about 22 years less than the U.S. general population — the causes are varied but often stress-related.1 The grief, loss of companionship, and financial burden associated with the early death of an officer has a lasting and irreplaceable effect on their spouse, children, and other family members.
Sources of Stress
Law enforcement stress can come from several sources. Some are external, such as high-speed car chases, foot pursuits, and gunfights. Surprisingly, other stressors are internal, originating from within the organization. These include internal affairs investigations, unacknowledged work, the constant scrutiny of police work, short staffing, mandatory overtime, agency bureaucracy, and scheduling. Organizational stressors occur with more frequency and, according to some research, may negatively impact police officers more than external, operational ones.2
In all the available programs and discussions on officer wellness, one aspect often overlooked is the vicarious effect stress can have on the family. Husbands and wives of law enforcement officers often deal with the impact of shift work on family members, fear of something bad happening to their loved one at work, and fallout of their spouse experiencing the negative effects of job stress.3
Often, an officer’s spouse will experience secondary traumatic stress, a syndrome that produces PTSD-like symptoms, as a result of being overly concerned about their significant other. This, in turn, can compound the officer’s initial stress and disrupt the balance within a marriage. In some cases, the pair may even share negative coping mechanisms, like drinking alcohol, which further exacerbates the problem.4
Likewise, children may feel the negative impact of job stress. In some law enforcement families, an officer’s child can go through periods of high anxiety or worry based on what they see on television, hear on the news, or experience in the home after a parent has been involved in a critical incident. Children display this anxiety in different ways — they may demand extra attention, become easily upset, or act out.5
The key to protecting an officer’s family is to build strong, positive relationships with them. This can be done by enhancing open communication, developing problem-solving skills, and building a family belief system.6
“[B]oth the immediate impact of a critical incident and the cumulative effects of long-term stress can negatively affect police officers’ personal and professional lives.”
It is important to address the effects of law enforcement stress and provide a departmental support system to help officers manage it and develop coping skills. Agencies can provide education, training, and other resources to their officers on stress and its proper management. Several programs are available to help them cope as well, such as Employee Assistance Programs (EAP), peer support, and Critical Incident Stress Management (CISM). A big hurdle to many of these resources is the perception many officers have that their peers may view them as weak if they admit to experiencing negative impacts from stress.7
Employee Assistance Programs
Counseling services are often provided by an agency’s EAP. These programs are generally funded by the department and confidential (except in circumstances of harm to oneself or others), and officers can use them as many times as needed. Through EAP, officers and/or their families have a counselor to help manage stress developed cumulatively or from a critical incident.
Peer Support Programs
Talking with a peer may help process many types of issues. Peer support programs allow officers to confidentially reach out to coworkers to discuss what may be bothering them. Topics of conversation can range from problems at home, a stressful incident at work, or a call for service that affected them significantly. Such programs are typically supported by a mental health professional, and peer support officers receive training in active listening, suicide prevention, and CISM.
Critical Incident Stress Management
A big part of overall resiliency training includes CISM, often referred to as a comprehensive tool because it consists of multiple components that can help individuals cope with critical incidents and the related stress.8
“The key to protecting an officer’s family is to build strong, positive relationships with them.”
CISM can involve a broad range of topics that support an officer’s normal coping mechanisms. Someone who is resilient is considered able to adapt well in the face of trauma and stress.9 Topics such as fitness, nutrition, financial wellness, mindfulness, and emotional intelligence can help build officer resiliency and lessen the impact of traumas associated with working in law enforcement.
Another aspect of CISM is Critical Incident Stress Debriefing (CISD), another tool that works in concert with EAP, peer support, and resiliency training for a department. A CISD is used to facilitate communication on a critical event that may have overwhelmed the normal coping skills of an officer. It allows participants to help normalize emotional reactions and educates them on what they may experience, giving them information on what to do if they endure persistent stress-related problems from a critical incident.10
It is important to pay attention to the effects of stress on both law enforcement officers and their family members. Officers who have received prior training in stress management will generally not transmit stress to their family members. Also, by recognizing the signs of stress-related symptoms, officers will have a better chance of managing them and acknowledging when stress is affecting their loved ones.11
If allowed to fester, these symptoms can have negative consequences. Departments that provide training and support to their officers allow them to be aware of when they or their families have been affected.
“Agencies can provide education, training, and other resources to their officers on stress and its proper management.”
Administrative Sergeant Bisbee serves with the Aberdeen, South Dakota, Police Department and is a graduate of FBI National Academy Session 281. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
1 John Violanti et al., “Life Expectancy in Police Officers: A Comparison with the U.S. General Population,” International Journal of Emergency Mental Health 15, no. 4 (2013): 217-228, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4734369/.
2 Jon Shane, “Organizational Stressors and Police Performance,” Journal of Criminal Justice 38, no. 4 (2010): 807-818, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jcrimjus.2010.05.008.
3 Mark Bond, “Married to the Badge: Stress in the Law Enforcement Marriage,” MultiBriefs, April 25, 2014, https://exclusive.multibriefs.com/content/married-to-the-badge-stress-in-the-law-enforcement-marriage/law-enforcement-defense-security.
4 Rudy Arredondo et al., Law Enforcement and Corrections Family Support: Final Report of the Development and Evaluation of a Stress Management Program for Officers and Their Spouses (Rockville, MD: National Criminal Justice Reference Service, 2002), https://www.ojp.gov/pdffiles1/nij/grants/197900.pdf.
5 Mark Bond, “Children of the Badge: The Impact of Stress on Law Enforcement Children,” MultiBriefs, May 22, 2014, http://exclusive.multibriefs.com/content/children-of-the-badge-the-impact-of-stress-on-law-enforcement-children/law-enforcement-defense-security.
6 Arredondo et al.
7 Alison MacEachern, Divya Jindal-Snape, and Sharon Jackson, “Child Abuse Investigation: Police Officers and Secondary Traumatic Stress,” International Journal of Occupational Safety and Ergonomics 17, no. 4 (2011): 329-339, https://doi.org/10.1080/10803548.2011.11076898.
8 Daniel Guenthner, “Emergency and Crisis Management: Critical Incident Stress Management for First Responders and Business Organisations,” Journal of Business Continuity and Emergency Planning 5, no. 4 (2012): 298-315, https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/22576135/.
10 MacEachern, Jindal-Snape, and Jackson.
11 Bond, “Children of the Badge.”