Managing police stress to strengthen relationships at home
Officers must accept that stress is taking a toll on their lives so they can take steps to mediate and reduce the adverse effects it has on them and their families
By Dr. Jarrod Sadulski, faculty member, Criminal Justice at American Military University
In most professions, there is some level of stress. However, the demands placed upon police officers and ongoing threats of—and exposure to—violence leads to extremely high levels of stress on a daily basis. Such stress can do more than affect an officer’s job performance; it can also seep into and damage their personal life.
Officers must acknowledge their stress and recognize how it impacts their personal relationships, specifically their marriage. It isn’t until officers accept that stress is taking a toll on their lives that they can then take steps to mediate and reduce the adverse effects it has on them and their families.
Types of Stress Officers Face
The stress of being a police officer is different than the stress experienced by civilians and even other first responders. Officers are constantly at risk of physical harm. They respond to dangerous and often unknown situations and regularly deal with unstable or unpredictable individuals, many of whom may try to harm them.
In addition to dealing with the risk of physical harm, officers face other sources of stress. Officers undergo psychological stress stemming from responsibilities like supporting victims or conducting investigations at crime scenes (Bishopp & Boots, 2014). Officers are also under great scrutiny from the public, which can cause officers to feel stressed while performing their duties. Lastly, many officers also feel they do not receive the support they need from management (Menard & Arter, 2014).
How Stress Hurts Law Enforcement Families
Stress has a direct impact on the personal lives of officers. Research shows that police officers are at an increased risk of divorce due to stress from the job (Galatzer-Levy et al., 2013). Officers also have higher rates of divorce than other occupations (Russell, 2014).
While many spouses exhibit pride in being married to an officer, the reality is that being a law enforcement family is hard. Factors that have a negative impact on police marriages include:
- Shift work and long hours. Shift work is often required in policing to provide adequate police coverage. Working different shifts and extended hours can result in stress at home because officers often have difficulties getting time off for family events.
- Conflict between work and family roles. While on duty, officers must always be prepared to defend themselves and respond quickly to a situation. It can be hard for officers to change this mindset when they’re off duty. Officers must make a concerted effort to step out of that role at the end of their shift when they’re with their families.
- Perceived changes in an officer’s personality between work and home (Karaffa et al., 2015). On the job, officers tend to be analytical and assertive in order to remain safe, which may result in conflict once at home.
In addition, many families suffer from financial problems, the strain of watching a loved one cope with trauma, and negative public perception of the police. These issues can all have an adverse impact on police marriages and family relationships, resulting in emotional exhaustion and work-family conflict (Karaffa et al., 2015). Specifically, negative public perception can increase stress in police families as the officer may be recognized by witnesses and arrestees while off duty and when accompanied by their family. This reality can make the officer uneasy in public places that are enjoyed by other families.
How to Improve Family Life
While much of the stress an officer experiences cannot be changed there are things an officer and his or her family can do to mitigate the impacts of that stress on an officer’s personal life. Here are a few things to help reduce the impact of stress on an officer’s marriage and family life:
- Peer support and communication. When an officer experiences a difficult situation that may cause stress, it should be addressed by a supervisor prior to the end of shift. An agency should have a peer-support system in place where select officers are designated to help other officers who have experienced a traumatic event. All officers should be able to communicate with peer officers in a private setting to talk about what occurred.
- Spousal support. Spouses also need to understand the stressors officers experience while on duty. By gaining a deeper understanding of these issues through literature and communication, spouses can provide further support for officers. In addition, spouses can foster support by enabling the officer to talk as much or as little about the traumatic events they experience.
- Support from family and friends. Having a support network can be a huge asset to police families. Something as simple as providing childcare for an evening so an officer and his/her spouse can spend time alone can help enormously. Because of an officer’s long hours and shiftwork, alone time with spouses is often overlooked and this is an important aspect of strengthening police families.
Spending time with other police couples or friends. It can be beneficial to have friends who experience similar challenges and who can relate to the challenges of coping with life as a law enforcement family.
Hobbies and Activities
In addition, there are other ways to help reduce the impact of police stress on a marriage. Officers should work to maintain an identity aside from being a police officer when they’re off-duty. This can be accomplished by developing hobbies or participating in activities that are not associated with law enforcement. Having a separate life and identity outside of policing enables officers to reduce the burden of always feeling as if they are on the job.
Friendships outside the Force
While it can be beneficial to know other law enforcement families, it is just as important to maintain friendships with couples who are not involved in law enforcement and work in different professions. This is advantageous because both officers and spouses can benefit from learning conflict resolution strategies and life perspectives that are not associated with the police mindset.
Role of the Agency
Police agencies also have an important role in supporting police marriages. While conflicting priorities often exist for police administrators that include scheduling challenges and emergency response preparation, it is important that an emphasis is placed on supporting officers’ home lives. This can be accomplished through offering flexibility in the shiftwork that officers are assigned and the opportunity for assignment to positions in the agency that have varying hours. For example, officers can benefit from specialized assignments that allow them to be home more when their families are available and during special family events. Also, police agencies may support police families by sponsoring activities that encourage time together for families, which may include events for squads to get together where they are accompanied with their spouses or children.
In conclusion, the police profession is inherently stressful and can have an adverse effect on police marriages and family relationships. Officers must be deliberate about taking steps to address their stress so it doesn’t impact their relationship with loved ones.
About the Author: Dr. Jarrod Sadulski is an adjunct professor with American Military University. He has spent more than two years studying police stress and its influence on the lives of police officers. In particular, Sadulski has conducted a review of approximately 300 peer-reviewed scholarly articles that focused on topics associated with police stress and officer wellness. In addition, he conducted a two-year qualitative study on how successful police officers effectively manage stress throughout their law enforcement career. With a Ph.D. in Criminal Justice, he continues to research effective stress management strategies for police officers to promote resiliency. In addition, Sadulski has 20 years of policing experience between both federal and local law enforcement. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org
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