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Summary of Stress in Law Enforcement

Participants completed the Masculine Role Inventory (Snell, 1986), the COPE (Carver, 1989), the Bem Sex-Role Inventory (Bem, 1974) and the Work Stress Inventory (Barone, 1989), and a brief personal information questionnaire. To evaluate mental health complaints, the officers were given a list of the symptoms for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, generalized anxiety disorder and depression.

Eleven percent of officers reported no mental health symptoms at all. Twenty eight percent reported having between one and two complaints and 32% had between three and five symptoms. What is most startling is that 68 % of officers report frequently being irritable for the past six months.

Sixty six percent of officers report being fatigued and 57% report sleep difficulties. Depressions, restlessness, a sense of numbing/detachment and muscle tension were also reported by approximately a third of officers. Many reports have commented on the poor health and wellness behaviors and relative lack of attention to comprehensive wellness within law enforcement organizations. Previous research has found similar results in terms of depression and anxiety (Biggam, 1997; Ansen, 1995).

For example, an analysis of the data from Wilson, Poole and Trew indicated that 25% of officers reported symptoms consistent with at least mild to moderate depression (Wilson, 1997). The ability to replicate these statistics with multiple protocols is astounding.

Just like civilians, there are a myriad of reasons for officers to feel stress. Nevertheless, officers face additional stressors such as shift work and physically demanding activities that cause physical, emotional and social stress.

Due to shift work, officers often face stress in their relationships from working shifts opposite from their significant others and most of the rest of the world (Akerstedt, 1990; Barling, 1990; Brandt, 1993; Finn and Tomz, 1996). Add to this the fact that it is much harder to get daily tasks like shopping done because they sleep all day and the physical stressors (sleep difficulties, exhaustion, reduced immunity) due to often not maintaining a consistent sleep schedule on their days off in order to see their families and get these tasks done, it becomes apparent why officers are stressed out, irritable and depressed.

Further, many departments still rotate shifts every 90 days and some departments are still rotating backward, i.e., dayshift goes to midnights and midnights go to evenings and evenings to days. Research has demonstrated that it takes at least 30 contiguous days before a peoples’ bodies adjust to a 180 degree rotation of their sleep schedule (Pocock et al., 1972; Anderson et al., 1987; Akerstedt, 1990; Nachreiner et al., 1995). Officers in this study reported high levels of restlessness, insomnia and irritability, all of which have been linked to, among other things, lack of quality sleep. These findings are consistent with previous research on shift work exposure (Pocock et al., 1972; Violanti and Aron, 1994; Nachreiner et al., 1995).

Physical health symptoms have also long been a problem in law enforcement, not only due to lack of sleep, but also due to high levels of stress. As of July 1, 2002, Florida Statute 440.091 proclaimed heart disease as able to be compensated by worker’s compensation as a work-related injury for law enforcement officers and firefighters. Stress also has been linked to back pain, the development of ulcers, and deterioration of conditions such as diabetes and high blood pressure. The percentage of officers reporting physical health symptoms underscores the impact that stress in this profession is having on their physical well-being.

Aside from mental stress, actual physical stresses such as gun belts that are too heavy, lopsided or bulky; cars that lack ergonomic design for someone wearing a twenty six pound, irregularly-shaped uniform, lack of adequate air conditioning and ventilation in cars and having to try to write while leaning on the hoods of their cars or other places tend to lead to back pain, general physical discomfort and irritability (Finn and Tomz, 1996). This irritability may be generalized from being uncomfortable to dreading work and then it affects officers’ interactions and tends to shape their perception (negatively) of everything they do that night.

Apathy at work often bleeds over into apathy about health and wellness behaviors. As the officer becomes more depressed and/or tired, they attend less to their physical needs and as they become less healthy, they become more depressed, irritable and/or tired. This is demonstrated, to some extent, in the physical symptoms checklist in which 28% of officers reported indigestion and 17% of officers reported being obese.

It is probable that these officers did not start their careers with indigestion, obesity and/or high blood pressure, but due to persistent exposure to stress and having to scarf down meals while driving between calls they developed or exacerbated these problems. Although, it is worth noting that the rate of symptoms reported in this study are not much different than in the general population. Nevertheless, other studies of law enforcement officers have reported much higher levels of physical distress than were found in this report (Vulcano, Barnes et al., 1984).

This could indicate that officers are starting to utilize wellness programs somewhat more effectively, or their stress is being evidenced in other ways besides physical symptoms. Lack of utilization of wellness programs remains one of the most frequent complaints of supervisors and risk managers in police departments. Poor physical health impacts people’s attitude and outlook, and poor attitude affects people’s physical health. It is a vicious cycle.

Thirty percent of the officers in this sample also reported a sense of numbing and detachment which is not unlike previous studies on law enforcement officers (Finn and Tomz, 1996). This is characteristic of the third of the five phases of Police Trauma Stress Disorder and is characterized by depersonalization, emotional numbing, loss of a sense of purpose, increased apathy, questions about the goodness of humanity, alienation and isolation from peers and family and the beginning of physical manifestations of stress such as indigestion, ulcers and insomnia (Anderson, 1998).

Many of these officers are on the verge of burnout which increases the likelihood they will make errors, be sick more and have more stress-related health, work and family problems (Burke, 1986; Burke, 1993; Brown, 1994).

With regard to coping styles, no differences were found. This is in contrast to many studies that have found, in civilian life, men and women use different coping styles more effectively (Greenglass, 1998; Keita and Sauter, 1994). One explanation of the findings in this study is highlighted in a study by James Quick in 1992. Men and women were found to use different types of social support to buffer stress.

Men used supports within the work environment and women use supports outside of the environment (Quick, 1992). This could be of great significance in debriefing officers, especially from sub-critical incidents (i.e. those for which there is not a mandatory debriefing). If the same trend holds true in law enforcement, then it might be useful to let female officers have a few minutes to call a friend instead of sending one of her teammates over to talk with her.

Another possible reason for this finding is that gender-role and socialization shape coping strategies. The gender-roles of the women in this study were similar to the males, which may indicate that they will use similar coping styles.

The Work Stress Inventory was specifically designed to address work stress in emergency service occupations. Men and women did not differ significantly on the subscales: organizational intensity, organizational frequency, job-risk frequency, organizational composite or (overall) composite stress. They did, however differ on job-risk stress intensity and job risk stress composite.

Female officers reported higher perceived intensity of job-risk stressors than males did. Part of this may be due to women often being of smaller stature than men, although effective defensive tactics training teaches women how to accomplish the same end regardless of their size. One possibility is that the training is ineffective, so females still feel more at risk. Part of it may also be socialization and desensitization.

Little boys often grow up playing rougher and playing games like cops and robbers; whereas, it is less common among girls. These activities may desensitize people to things the average person would consider dangerous.

Since male and female officers demonstrated similar overall work stress, coping styles, gender-roles and perceived frequency of job-risk and organizational stressors, the question then arises “What is it about the specific stressor that makes them more stressful for different people.” In a study of gender differences in coping and burnout among veterinarians, female vets perceived stressors as being much more intense than their male counterparts (Welsch, 1998). Carol Gilligan’s work would point to the socialization process of females and their moral decision making process.

According to her theory, women define themselves and their worth based upon the ability to care for and protect others. The moral imperative is to alleviate the real and recognizable trouble of the world. For men, the moral imperative is to respect the rights of others and noninterference in their pursuit of life and self-fulfillment. Women vets may feel the stress of trying to save someone’s beloved pet, while male vets may see it as more of a clinical procedure that either succeeds or fails.

Similarly, female cops may perceive more stress from the fact that the high-risk activities often only serve to cause more problems in the big picture; whereas, male officers recognize the dangerousness of the activities, but also feel a sense of accomplishment by doing their jobs and do not dwell on the enduring, ancillary social problems caused by an imperfect system.

It appears from the data, that females who endorse a defensive coping style and have less formal education tend to have higher overall work stress levels. As stated in the discussion of the demographic variables, defensive coping is primarily a method of avoidance, so the person does not learn to deal with the problem. Formal education may either serve as a method of desensitization to organizational stress, teach people how to cope with it or weed-out those people who cannot handle it.

For the male sample, coping style and educational level did not have even a modest relationship to the prediction of overall work stress. This is curious because several studies have found relationships between coping and stress levels (Biggam, 1997). Another avenue to explore would be locus of control as some studies have indicated that locus of control is more predictive of stress levels than coping style (Richman, 1985; Grace, 1986). Other studies have also indicated that people’s coping mechanisms vary depending upon the intensity of the stressor (Brown, 1998).

The frequency of organizational stress and the intensity of job-risk stress most significantly contributed to the prediction of overall work stress for both genders. Women’s perception of the intensity of job risk stress tends to be higher, but their overall job-risk stress scores are similar to the males indicating that they also perceive that these stressors occur less frequently than the males do.

One question to be further investigated is whether this difference is due to differential duty assignments (i.e. females are assigned to less dangerous zones) or whether, as indicated by Denise VanEssen (1990) that female officers reported fewer traumatic events and rated the exposure to events as less traumatic and of shorter duration (Van Essen, 1990).


Implications and Recommendations

The results of this study indicates that male and female law enforcement officers are more similar than they are different, so using similar stress debriefing techniques and supervisory methods may be appropriate. Nevertheless, to attend to the significant difference between the perceived intensity of job-risk stress, it would be beneficial for female officers to receive extra training in defensive tactics, and strategy and planning.

Based on findings by other researchers that 25% or more of officers have substance abuse problems and a significant proportion report violence in their relationships, it is vitally important to find a way to allow these officers to seek help (Ansen, 1995). Most of them will not go to counseling for fear of retribution by the department. Most will not call a civilian crisis hotline because they believe the counselors will not understand. Almost one quarter of officers said they would use or benefit from an anonymous, 24-hour stress debriefing hotline.

Further, it is obvious that males and females are suffering the negative consequences of a lack of wellness programming and stress management. The high levels of symptoms of depression, anxiety and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder found, not only in this study, but also many others, indicates the need for a new approach to mental and physical health in law enforcement.

When officers are not well emotionally, mentally and physically, departments and the community at large have to spend more time and money covering shifts for sick officers, resolving complaints from citizens because burned out officers do not have as much patience, paying huge sums of money in law suits for officers misconduct, not to mention the costs outside of work on their home and family due to domestic violence and substance abuse.

Health and wellness programs that currently exist in law enforcement departments focus on exercise and nutrition. This is a good start, but the participation is virtually non-existent.

The costs are not made to outweigh the benefits. Officers are not going to spend more time away from their families than they already do, especially if it is unpaid time. Nutritional programs teach how to eat healthfully, but fail to address the reasons people would not want to change (i.e. the unhealthy food is free, little is open at 3am to eat etceteras). Further, although a model for Police Trauma Stress Disorder (a variant of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder caused by chronic exposure to stressful events that fall outside the normal realm of experience), very little is done to educate officers about emotional wellness and the importance of recreation that does not always include alcohol.

In this study 23.4% of officers said that, if an anonymous stress debriefing hotline was available, they would use it. This is in contrast to the 7.8% of officers who use the employee assistance program.

The National Institute of Justice has started a family support grant that is geared toward helping departments fund comprehensive wellness programs that allow law enforcement families to be able to afford good childcare, have childcare available for midnight shift workers, provide free, anonymous stress counseling to officers, and pay for nutritionists, fitness centers, personal trainers and pays officers a per-hour rate to workout.

Due to the high rates of anxiety, depression , muscle tension found in this study and the prevalence of burnout within the first five years on the force, divorce, alcoholism and domestic violence found in other studies, it appears that early warning signs of stress and burnout are being missed (Ansen, 1995; Finn, 1996; Paton, 1996).

It would benefit supervisors to receive more training in the identification of symptoms of stress, their impact and methods of stress debriefing. Supervisors currently do their best to help their subordinates, but are either missing the signs and symptoms, or the interventions they are using are ineffective. Officers and their families could also benefit from education about stress management, communication skills, nutrition and fitness and demystification of depression and other mental health issues.

Counselors who work with law enforcement officers need to be better trained in the law enforcement culture, beliefs and taboos. Open display of emotions is difficult for most officers, male or female.



This study provided initial information about American law enforcement officers and factors that contribute to their perception of work stress and ultimately factors that may lead to burnout. The factors of organizational stress frequency and job-risk stress intensity were strongly correlated to overall work stress. This supports the idea that chronic low-grade stress contributes to overall stress as much as periodic high-grade stress. Limitations encountered in this study and recommendations for future research were also presented.

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