A Guide to Mitigating and Preventing Stress in U.S. Law Enforcement Organisations

Researchers Jennifer R. Rinner and Travis A. Taniguchi developed the Customized Offerings for Mitigating & Preventing Agency-Specific Stress (COMPASS) project, with the knowledge that many aspects of police work could be stressful. Their work is based on having the necessary tools to identify which stressors affect agents the most and how to tackle them in order to create a sustainability plan.

Law enforcement officers often suffer from extreme stress, which differs in many ways from the stress experienced in other professions. On a regular basis, police officers are exposed to violence, human suffering, death, and unpredictable and uncontrollable events, in addition to maintaining non-standard work timetables.

Although efforts to address the mental health of police officers have often focused on exposure to traumatic incidents, research has shown that organisational stressors would be challenges related to the internal culture and practices of police agencies, which are also detrimental.

Work-related stress includes fatigue, insomnia, depression, anxiety and a whole host of psychological problems; other somatic problems, such as back pain and headaches, and harmful habits such as increased alcohol consumption and smoking, lack of physical exercise and diets with a high content of fat.

Work-related stress has been associated with more on-the-job injuries, increased absenteeism, and increased staff turnover. Work-related stressors correspond to negative emotions, such as frustration and anger, which increase the chances of having interpersonal problems with co-workers.

Stress can also affect police-community interactions. Officers experiencing greater stress-related burnout report more accepting attitudes towards the use of violence. Emotions induced by stress and fatigue are connected to police disengagement with the community. Stress can also have an impact on officers’ well-being, family life and interactions with community members, and ultimately the safety of the neighbourhoods they serve.

Most law enforcement agencies have some tools to support health and wellness. But a shortcoming of many available resources is the failure to incorporate significant contextual factors. Due to factors such as the size of the organisation, the internal culture, the political environment, and the relationship between police and professional staff, police organisations differ greatly in the challenges they face.

To address this gap, RTI International and the National Policing Institute, with funding from the Community Policing Development program of the Office of Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS Office), developed a process that police chiefs can use to better understand and thus respond to the major sources of stress in their own departments.

The purpose of this publication is to offer agency leadership a step-by-step guide on how to identify which aspects of the job are causing the most stress to officers and staff (including supervisors), and then implement specific solutions to make improvements in these targeted areas. This guide provides instructions on the steps necessary to do this effectively, including:

  • Listening to the needs and experiences of officers and staff in different roles.
  • Understanding the underlying causes of the distress experienced.
  • Identifying areas that can be improved.
  • Implementing significant changes.
  • Evaluating the effectiveness of these efforts.

Before taking any of these steps, it is essential to identify the police chiefs who will lead the coordination of these efforts.


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