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January 20, 2004

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Dawn-Elise Snipes (Always) Thinking About Wellness
with Dawn-Elise Snipes

Social Effects of Stress on Employees and Police Officers

As stress increases, people begin to experience impaired social functioning and relationship problems (Finn and Tomz, 1996). In 1996, David Alexander and Leslie Walker surveyed 409 spouses of police officers to assess the impact of police work on the welfare and functioning of these families. Police work was found to have an adverse impact on the family, particularly in terms of their social life due to long hours, shiftwork and canceled leave.

In addition, methods used by the officers to combat stress, such as avoidance of emotion focused methods of coping, use of denial, displacement, and addictions to food, alcohol and tobacco may create additional difficulties.

Law enforcement officers experience a much higher rate of divorce, family and interpersonal problems (Niederhoffer et al., 1978; Burke, 1989; Esposito, 1989; Burke, 1993; Ansen and Colon, 1995). According to records from police employee assistance programs, it is estimated that between 37 and 68% of LEOs experience serious marital difficulties and nearly 100% of officers expressed that police work had a negative impact on their families (Ansen and Colon, 1995; Kurke and Scrivner, 1995).

In a survey of 553 police officers and their spouses, 41% of male officers and 34% of female officers reported experiencing violent assaults in their marital relationships and over 1/3 of wives of officers reported violence. In addition, the divorce rate for officers was found to be between 66% and 75%, and 20% to 30% of the participants reported abusing alcohol (Ansen and Colon, 1995). In addition, several reports have indicated that over one-quarter of children of LEOs experience mental distress (Esposito, 1989; Violanti and Paton, 1999).

In one study, Carol Esposito investigated how occupational stress experienced by police officers affected their teenager’s psychosocial adjustment and perception of the family environment. Twenty-five male police officers from several police departments and twenty-five of their teenagers, ages 12 through 18, participated in this study. Police officers completed a General Information Questionnaire; the Maslach Burnout Inventory, the Family Environment Scale (Modified), the T-Anxiety scale of the State-Trait Anxiety Inventory and a Personal Questionnaire. Their teenagers responded to a General Information Sheet, the Piers-Harris Children's Self-Concept Scale, the Family Environment Scale (Modified), the Reynolds Adolescent Depression Scale and an interview.

A significant positive correlation was found at the .01 level between the degree of personal accomplishment of police officers, and the perception of family cohesion by their teenagers. Significant relationships were also found between police officers' level of anxiety and their teenagers' perception of family conflict; and between the police officers' and their teenagers' perceptions of the family environment. Qualitative data from the police officers and their teenagers gave strong evidence for the impact that stress experienced by police officers has on their family, specifically, their children (Esposito, 1989).

Officers who are under extreme stress tend to begin to perceive the world as a hostile and unwelcoming place (Bonifacio, 1991; Quick et al., 1992; Finn and Tomz, 1996). Consequently, they withdraw from everyone, even the people who could provide social support. Workers often call in sick because they cannot tolerate the thought of having to deal with their coworkers or the general work situation (Perrier and Toner, 1984; Finn and Tomz, 1996).

Socially, LEOs withdraw from civilians and often begin to perceive them as “outsiders” and the “enemy” (Thomas-Riddle, 1985; Bonifacio, 1991; Ansen and Colon, 1995; Finn and Tomz, 1996). They quit engaging in non-law enforcement activities, at first to focus on righting the wrongs of the world, but eventually, simply to avoid interacting with anyone at all (Perrier and Toner, 1984; Reiser and Geiger, 1984).

As LEOs move from being an idealistic rookie to realizing the hard realities of the world and police work, they also lose a sense of purpose (Stradling, Crowe et al., 1993; Anderson, 1998). They become increasingly rigid in their definitions of right and wrong and they become increasingly intolerant of faults and mistakes in others. One of the earliest discussions of this phenomenon was lead by Ernest Chandler and Claude Jones on 1979 in their book “Cynicism: An inevitability of police work?”

Through their work with officers, they observed that constant negative stimuli appeared to influence the officer's personality and make him or her vulnerable to becoming more cynical toward humanity and its processes than persons in any other occupations. John Volianti and his colleagues pursued this theory and investigated the frequency with which officers were cynical and the impact this had on overall stress levels. Five hundred officers completed the questionnaires for this study. The results indicated that subject’s attempts to cope with stress by being cynical did not lessen stress and this coping failure was related to an increased use of alcohol (Violanti et al., 1985).

Freud identified several defense mechanisms that people use when they are unable to cope with situations. These defense mechanisms prevent people from being able to objectively evaluate and cope with a situation (McWilliams, 1994). Projection, displacement, splitting and moralization are four of the most caustic defenses as they not only prevent objectivity, but they also validate a person’s belief that others are hostile and untrustworthy (McWilliams, 1994).

As officers become increasingly cynical, they begin to view the world in terms of us-them dichotomies (Ansen and Colon, 1995; Violanti, 1999). Freud referred to viewing the world into dichotomies as “splitting (Valliant, 1992).” Further, cops often believe that they are right and the rest of the world is wrong this has been referred to as moralization (Thomas-Riddle, 1985; Chandler and Jones, 1979; Alexander and Walker, 1994; Ansen and Colon, 1995) The more energy that is expended in defense mechanisms such as constant cynicism and moralization, the greater the energy deficit for mental processes such as concentration, problem solving and taking multiple perspectives (Crose et al., 1992).

Assisting officers in developing effective coping skills and maintaining civilian social supports is essential to promoting a healthy workforce.

About the author


Add your comments to the discussion on Dawn Elise Snipes' column in the Wellness Issues forum.

Contact Dawn-Elise: wellness@policeone.com







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