A 2012 survey of 4,500 Canadian police officers across the nation conducted by Professor Linda Duxbury of Carleton University in Ottawa found that around 50% of respondents reported that they experienced high levels of stress. Another 46% reported moderate stress levels. More than 60% of officers were off work for 14 or more days a year because of various health issues, often stress-related. The study also found that officers typically worked more than 50 hours a week, but more importantly were subject to varying and unpredictable shift patterns which were in themselves a source of significant stress.
In extremely stressful situations, the human body releases an abundant flow of the hormone, adrenalin, which is responsible for the commonly understood “fight or flight” reaction. For most people, fortunately, these kind of experiences are very rare.
But for police and other service members, they may be an almost daily event, which can lead to chronic stress and consequent physical and mental health problems. So how can police and potential police officers protect their physical and mental health given the inevitable strains of their daily work?
Here are a few simple tips:
There’s now good evidence that regular intensive exercise stimulates the production of endorphins – the “feel good” hormones which can help ward off depression. Almost by definition, most police service officers are already very fit and active, but maintaining a personal regime of enjoyable exercise away from work – be it running, swimming, cycling or going to the gym can be a great way of relieving stress. Practicing deep breathing exercises, whether derived from yoga or other systems, can also be of help, and with training these can also be used during particularly stressful incidents.
Diet and Lifestyle
The human organism works holistically, so that physical and mental health are inextricably linked. Maintaining a healthy diet is therefore crucial to managing stress. The use of alcohol, tobacco and other narcotics may bring short-term enjoyment and relief of stress, but in the long term tend to have a depressive effect. They should be used only in moderation. It’s also vital to get adequate sleep. Individual needs vary, but in general a range between 6-8 hours a night will suit most healthy adults.
Long work hours and changing shifts may make this difficult, but a social life outside work is very important. Talking with friends about sports, last night’s TV, or almost anything other than work, however mundane it may seem, can be a very effective stress reliever. Of course all of these things are helpful to the population as a whole and not just those working for the police service.
But as a recent report by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police in Ontario asserted, police officers may face unusual pressures and inhibitions. The report, based on information from both serving officers and mental health professionals, identified a particular problem in the policing profession. This is the perceived need for officers to be seen as being strong and able to cope with extremely high pressure and distressing situations, which would likely be unmanageable for “ordinary” people.
A consequent fear of appearing weak in front of colleagues or superiors can often lead to officers being extremely reluctant to talk about any stress and mental health problems they may be experiencing. This is unfortunate because, as many police services are now recognizing, simply talking about experiences is often an extremely good therapy in itself. Properly managed team meetings in which individual officers feel empowered and unafraid to speak about their experiences can be a very effective means of promoting this.
It’s also important where possible for officers to try to maintain some sort of personal space within the workplace; a place to decompress after a shift or an unusually stressful event. For some individuals keeping a diary or journal can also be an effective and private way of dealing with stressful feelings. In more serious cases, officers should be able to access mental health professionals without stigma or taboo, and it’s a welcome development that police services across Canada are increasingly making this a priority.