What Can Police Officers Do To Avoid Burnout?

Hello everyone, it’s Lisa Wimberger from TPCG, and I wanted to share this post I read on a professional database, and found to be insightful, direct, and a much needed inside-perspective on the topic of stress management.  Jeff was gracious enough to give me permission to reprint his blog post with my readers and now I’m sharing it with you as the readers of CopsAlive.

“Let me begin with a disclaimer. Unlike many of my readers, I AM NOT a mental health professional, or for that matter uniquely qualified to provide specific advice regarding such matters. I AM a public safety professional with first hand experience dealing with individuals who were experiencing burnout.

Besides working as an advisor to private businesses, I work in a sworn capacity, for a police agency in Southern California. The agency I work for has just over 100 sworn employees. During the time I have worked there, my co-workers and I have experienced fellow employee suicides, on-duty deaths, deaths of officer’s children, deaths of officer’s spouses and other family members, several officer involved shootings, as well as a myriad of other stressors. As you have likely recognized, these events that I have mentioned deal almost exclusively with my “Police Family,” and do not address the stressors we experience during the course of our daily shifts.

My experience has shown, some public safety professionals are better suited, or have better resources to deal with stress than others. All people experience stress, and for those in public safety, individual stressors can be compounded by a variety of factors. These factors can include things such as the trauma we observe regularly, lack of a healthy outlet to help decompress when feeling stressed, down to small details such as the stressors of shift work. My layman’s observation is that ongoing stress can lead to burnout.

Everyone who is working in, or has worked in public safety knows at least one victim. I am referring to a co-worker who is suffering from burnout. You know the person I am talking about, the individual who has fallen victim to the chronic stressors of a public safety career and has entered the realm of emotional exhaustion.

Burnout can manifest itself in many ways, to include waning work productivity, cynicism, strained relationships with peers, supervisors and the public, as well as possible compromises to one’s mental and physical health.

One of the most common manifestations of burnout that I have witnessed is what my peers and I refer to is the R.O.D. or Retired On Duty. This is a person who, due to burnout, has become jaded and has decided to do absolutely as little as possible while at work.

Another common manifestation of burnout that I have witnessed is the employee who regularly calls in sick. This begs the question, is this person actually sick, or merely avoiding work to lessen the effects of their burnout they are experiencing? Also, if they are legitimately sick, could the illness be the result of a compromised immune system related to burnout? In any event, this situation is not healthy for the individual or the agency.

When considering burnout, I would contend that the aforementioned workplace behaviors are merely symptoms of a larger problem. In addition to the stress employees experience at work, their personal life and support system are likely also contributing factors.

I recently had the opportunity to read a paper from The Family Journal titled, Family Systems at Work: The Relationship Between Family Coping and Employee Burnout (Appel & Kim-Appel 2008). In this paper the authors described their research, which showed significant ties between a person’s family coping resources and skills, and their likelihood to experience workplace burnout. The following is an excerpt of the authors’ findings.

This study investigated the reciprocal influence that coping in multiple life domains (personal, couple, family, and work) have on burnout. The presence or lack of multiple system coping resources was found to be related to the phenomenon of maladaptation known as burnout. The literature concerning the constructs of couple and family resources (i.e., circumplex model) has shown that it is possible to improve the coping resources of the couple and family systems on the basis of systemic interventions that target these resources for improvement (Olson, 2000; Tiesel, Miller, & Olson, 1995; Trepper & Sprenkle, 988). Thus, the findings of this investigation would suggest that researchers as well as family therapists or employee assistance counselors could make an impact in reducing employee burnout across a wide range of occupations by examining worker stress and burnout within the context of couple and family constructs or by providing couple, family, and other systemic interventions. A family therapist targeting an improvement in a worker’s family flexibility could make a significant impact in preventing or reducing employee burnout.

So what can be done to avoid burnout?

1) If you feel that you might be headed for, or experiencing burnout, seek help! Your decision to do so will likely pay huge dividends. As the study cited above conveys, counseling that takes a holistic approach (to include personal, couple, family, as well as work) may be of particular assistance. Many public safety employers provide resources for counseling free of charge.

2) Focus on improving your diet and exercise. According to the Mayo Clinic website, “virtually any form of exercise can decrease the production of stress hormones and counteract your body’s natural stress response” (2008). As earlier discussed, chronic stress can lead to burnout.

3) Educate yourself to the signs, and symptoms caused by stress. Although it is not likely possible to inoculate yourself to stress caused by things such as critical incidents, you will likely be able to better manage the stress if you know what to expect as far as your body’s physiological response. To help understand this I would recommend reading a book titled “Emotional Survival for Law Enforcement,” by Kevin M. Gilmartin, Ph.D. [ISBN 0-9717254-0-3]. I believe it would be beneficial to anyone working in public safety, not just law enforcement. Another option would be to proactively meet with a counselor who specializes in dealing with public safety personnel. They would likely be able to assist you in understanding how to manage stress, which can lead to burnout.”

I think Jeff said things very well and they tie in with our missions at TPCG and CopsAlive.com.  TPCG continues its mission to create preventative stress management and emotional survival courses for first responders.  We add on to Jeff’s experience and suggestions by offering concrete techniques to help navigate the cycle of stress once an individual has identified it.  Please visit both Jeff’s and TPCG’s websites: http://Jeff-Chase.squarespace.com and www.tpconsultinggroup.com

Lisa Wimberger
TPCG Founder and CEO

CopsAlive.com was founded to provide information and strategies to help police officers successfully survive their careers.  We help law enforcement officers and their agencies prepare for the risks that threaten their existence.

We do this by Helping Law Enforcement professionals plan for happy, healthy and successful lives on the job and beyond.  We think the best strategy is for each officer to create a tactical plan for their own life and career.

The Law Enforcement Survival Institute (LESI) works with individuals and organizations to help them create and sustain success in their lives and careers as law enforcement professionals.  It is the primary goal of The Law Enforcement Survival Institute to become the preeminent source for training, resources and information about how to create and sustain a happy, healthy and successful life and career while providing superior law enforcement service to your community.

About Lisa Wimberger

Lisa Wimberger works on a national level with law enforcement officers suffering Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, both at the agency and individual levels. Lisa’s ability to bring tools to law enforcement agencies offers a proactive solution to stress management and crisis intervention. These techniques are truly alternative modalities for a healthier person and organization. Lisa specializes in training individuals and organizations to understand, identify and retrain stress patterns that undermine job performance. Her specialized approach for law enforcement creates a platform upon which individuals begin to identify the early signs of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. The techniques help those caught in a hyper-vigilant stress cycle to navigate a new path through a downward spiral. Lisa offers concrete tools that help officers gain perspective during crisis, determine the personal impact, steer clear of dysfunctional patterned behavioral responses, and derive healthier options. Lisa founded the Trance Personnel Consulting Group TPCG) in January, 2007. It is the aggregate of the many human behavior disciplines that make up her background. With hundreds of law enforcement agents trained in 2008 the statistics speak clearly; for those in high trauma jobs there is an urgent need for an effective preventative approach to crisis intervention. Many of Lisa's family and friends were NYPD or NYFD and she spent time teaching these techniques to help rebuild families that effected her personally. She has also experienced an array of massive physical trauma herself and has used the same tools as a way to deal with all of that. Her own erosional trauma experiences include: Blinded in one eye at age 11, Hit by lightening at age 15, Blinded in both eyes at age 19, and Flatlined, no pulse-no cardio, on 3 or more occassions. She has recovered completely from all of the above events and has used the techniques to help her live a normal, healthy and rewarding life.
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