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Emotional Effects of Stress on Employees and Police Officers

Stress in organizations can cause reduced morale and productivity as well as increased absenteeism and turnover (Tang and Hammontree, 1992; Speilberger and Reheiser, 1994; Greene and Nowack, 1995; Finn and Tomz, 1996). Communities are indirectly affected by law enforcement officers’ stress due to reduced quality and quantity of service, and the increased cost to taxpayers for vocational rehabilitation of officers who have developed stress related illnesses such as alcoholism, depression and anxiety (Hageman, 1982; Speilberger and Reheiser, 1994; Cartwright and Cooper, 1997).

Many high-ranking police officers and sheriffs still believe that stress is not a problem that requires attention. This belief is based upon two assumptions 1) stress exists but it is a fundamental component of police work and therefore cannot be changed, and 2) there are limited resources of both time and money, which make stress management a low priority (Brown and Campbell, 1994).

Stress can generally be defined as the body’s non-specific response to any demand placed upon it. There are two main types of stress, chronic and acute (Seaward, 1998). Chronic stressors are persistent everyday stressors of a low to moderate intensity such as organizational stress (i.e., organizational politics, poor supervision and shift work). The number, intensity and frequency of chronic stressors are additive and often exceed the long-term impact of any one acute stressor. Acute stressors are events that are time limited and intense, such as critical incidents (i.e., officer involved shootings or hurricanes).

Although stress is conceptualized as primarily a psychological phenomenon, its impact on the body cannot be minimized. As people experience psychological stress, physiological responses occur which prepare the body to encounter the stressor (Hyyppae, 1987; Hyyppae et al., 1988; Beerda et al., 2000). Therefore, both the mind and body have a demand placed upon them that, after a sufficient period, can lead to mental and physical exhaustion, depression and burnout.


Emotional Effects of Stress on Employees and Police Officers

Several qualities have been found to characterize “burnout work environments” in the general workforce. These include role overload, role ambiguity, role conflict, too much responsibility with little or no authority, insufficient resources or training, lack of sufficient rewards, unpleasant or unsafe working conditions, lack of mental stimulation, and lack of control over vocational future (Seaward, 1998; Kurke, 1995; Kroes, 1976; Hart, 1995 ). When one or more of these qualities is present, work becomes stressful. Burnout is an end-state resulting from extended periods of extreme stress. It is characterized by depersonalization, lack of a sense of personal accomplishment and emotional exhaustion (Burke et al., 1986; Burke, 1987; Burke, 1993).

Consider the following findings:

  • In the past ten years, it is estimated that 80-85% of illnesses are stress related (Seaward, 1998).
  • Almost 90 billion dollars is paid in worker’s compensation claims for illnesses and injuries that are speculated to be the direct and indirect result of worker stress and exhaustion (Seaward, 1998; Bannerman, 1996).
  • Law enforcement officers submit worker’s compensation claims six times more often than other employees (Bannerman, 1996).
  • In a survey of 553 police officers and spouses, 41% of male officers and 34% of female officers experience violent assaults in their marital relationships. Sixty six to 75% of officers experience divorce. Twenty percent of officers report excessive use of alcohol while on the job (Ansen and Colon 1995; Brown and Campbell, 1994).
  • It is estimated that direct costs to industry of alcohol and drug abuse are close to $80 billion per year. Fourteen percent of Americans abuse alcohol and 5% of Americans abuse or are dependent on illicit drugs (Kahn 1993).
  • In a study of 852 officers, with a 89% participation rate, survey results indicated that almost half (48%) of males and more than two-fifths (40%) of females consumed alcohol excessively. Over one-quarter (27%) of male and one-third (32%) of female respondents reported smoking, and 12% of men and 15% of women reported feeling moderate to severe symptoms of stress (Richmond, 1998).
  • In 1985 11% of all claims for occupational disease were made for “gradual mental stress” (Keita, 1992).
  • Direct treatment and support costs comprise 45.3% of the total economic costs of mental disorders. The value of reduced or lost productivity comprises 42.7% of the total economic costs of mental disorders (Rice and Miller, 1993).
  • Morbidity costs--the value of goods and services not produced because of health problems--amounted to $63.1 billion for all mental disorders in 1990. Morbidity costs for anxiety disorders accounted for $34.2 billion (Rice and Miller, 1993).
  • Other related costs--the costs indirectly related to the treatment and lost productivity of people with mental disorders--amounted to $6 billion in 1990 (Rice and Miller, 1993).

Stress has been identified as a factor in the development of mental disorders such as anxiety, depression, addictions and burnout. To deal with these feelings, employees often turn to emotional numbing and escape, sometimes using medication, or developing addictions or eating disorders (Quick, Murphy et al., 1992; Alexander and Walker, 1994; Alexander and Walker, 1996; Paton and Violanti, 1997; Richmond, Kehoe et al., 1999).

In 1980, T.W. Robbins and P.J. Fray found that non-specific stimuli can bring about eating, and that emotional states including "hunger," "stress" and “anxiety” all cause similar internal changes. That is, “stress” can mistakenly be interpreted as “hunger” leading the person to eat instead of coping with the stressor.

One pervasive condition in law enforcement is post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). When the benchmarks for the development of PTSD are considered, most law enforcement officers experience a considerable number of traumatic events and display many symptoms of PTSD.

  1. The person has been exposed to a traumatic event.
  2. The traumatic event is persistently re-experienced.
  3. Persistent avoidance of stimuli associated with the trauma and numbing of general responsiveness (not present before the trauma).
  4. Persistent symptoms of increased arousal (not present before the trauma).
  5. Duration of the disturbance is more than one month.
  6. The disturbance causes clinically significant impairment in social, occupational or other important aspects of functioning (DSM IV, 427-429). Although the incidents producing PTSD are considered acute stressors, for this population, they are often frequent, and their impact enduring.

Many researchers have assessed the frequency of exposure to various stressors among law enforcement officers. In 1997, Holly Robinson, Melissa Sigman and John Wilson conducted a study to evaluate the frequency and effects of exposure to “duty-related stressors” in suburban American police officers. In this study activities ranging from controlling riots, doing CPR, seeing someone die, responding to a fatal motor vehicle accident, responding to domestic violence incidents involving a weapon and encountering people with contagious diseases such as tuberculosis or HIV. High scores for exposure to incidents in this category predicted overall PTSD, and symptoms of PTSD, intrusive traumatic memory, avoidance and hyperarousal. Law enforcement officers experience some of these on a daily or weekly basis.

Due to the high rate that officers are exposed to traumatic events a triage method that was proposed by Pynoos and Nader to assess the differential impact of traumatic events on victim-witnesses is helpful to conceptualize why some incidents are more problematic for some people (Pynoos and Nader, 1990). In this model, they assert that trauma severity can be predicted by the similarity of the person to the victim, the proximity of the offense to the person’s home, preexisting psychopathology within the last six months, and the amount of social support the person has.

Burnout is the result of feelings of hopelessness or helplessness left unattended. At this point, the worker has lost all ability to function effectively both at work and at home (Burke et al., 1986; Anderson, 1998). Chronic stress has been implicated in making the most significant contributions to the development of burnout and distress in workers (Burke, 1993).

In 1986 Ronald Burke and Eugene Deszca investigated the theory that burnout may be a progressive process whereby officers move through eight “phases” within the each of the categories of burnout: depersonalization, lack of personal accomplishment and emotional exhaustion. Supporting the impact of emotional stress on the physical body, individuals who reported being in higher phases of burnout reportedly exercised less, drank more coffee and alcohol and smoked more (Burke and Deszca, 1986).

Several other studies investigating how officers cope with different types of stressors have been conducted. In 1994, Leslie Walker investigated 1000 police officers’ methods and efficacy of coping with work-related stress, both off and on duty. The most common methods of relaxation were: working harder (77%), keep things to myself (81%), talk things over with colleagues (85%), eating disturbances (66%), increased smoking (73%), and take it out on others (55%). Eight percent reported using alcohol or drugs to cope while on duty. Other coping methods assessed included delegation of tasks, seeking spiritual help, taking sick leave, exercising and using relaxation exercises (Alexander and Walker, 1994). And, sadly, seventy three percent of officers surveyed viewed their current coping skills as only slightly effective. This inability to adequately cope with stress produces the well known systemic effects on the officer’s health and overall functioning.

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