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Stress in the Police Force: Causes and Effects

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Criminology
Wordcount: 2659 words Published: 13th Feb 2019

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This paper discusses police and the stress they deal with on a daily basis. It goes in depth on the negative issues of stress on police officers, the causes of stress and how stress can be managed. Lastly, this paper concludes that in order to have successful officers in our community we must address the significance of stress.                                                                                                

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Stress is a term used by many, but it is often misunderstood. Parker (2006) describes stress as physical and mental responses between personal experience and expectations. There is positive stress which helps improve athletic performance due to motivation that causes people to feel competitive, but generally stress is associated with negativity. Stress can be defined as the bodies reaction to internal and external stimuli that disrupts the bodies normal state. Stress normally upsets the normal state. The stimuli that causes stress can be physical, mental, or emotional. The body has to react to stressful situations which are called the flight-or-fight response and the body’s subconscious decision is critical for law enforcement officers.  Officer’s initial reaction to an incident cannot be to run away from it they must run to it because it is there duty and citizens are relying on them. However, stress can weaken and disturb the body’s defense mechanisms and may play a role in developing hypertension, ulcers, cardiovascular disease, and possibly even cancer. Stress alone does not cause sickness but it is a contributing factor to the development of certain illnesses. This can be very detrimental to a police officer’s career and wellbeing. So it becomes critical that we analyze the leading factors in stress for cops and find out how it can be combatted to make a better more sustainable police force.                                   

Overview of Stress in law Enforcement                        

Law enforcement officers deal with four categories of stress which are external, organizational, personal, and operational. Eternal stressed is caused by real dangers that officers face outside of the office. These dangers can be found at every single traffic stop they make no matter how routine it is. There is always that unknown factor that causes them to stress. Organizational stress on officers comes from the military like structure within the department. This can include the strange hours and the constant changing duties for the officers. Personal stress is produced from interpersonal relationships within the department. This can come from relationships with other officers or with your superiors. Finally, operational stress comes from the daily confrontation of bad things. This can include officers dealing with criminals or looking at deaths. This creates stress for them. There is not just one way that will cause an officer to stress, instead there are multiple different facotrs that lead to officer stress. Therefore, multiple different approaches need to be taken in order to reduce thesed stress levels and produce and better law enforcement officer.                                                                                                          

Negative Outcomes of Stress

Work related factors that lead to increased stress in officers are: risky situations, organizational stress, and shift work. All of these stress catalysts can take a toll on police officers and can eventually negatively change their work performance. There are all sorts of way that officers cope with their stress levels and the majority of them are self-destructive and prove to be detrimental to their career. These can be harmful not only the individual officer but also the community in which they are serving. According to A National Institute of Justice report some other consequences of being a police officer that causes stress are cynicism and suspiciousness, emotional detachment from aspects of daily life, reduced efficiency, absenteeism and early retirement, excessive aggressiveness, alcoholism and other substance abuse problems, marital or other family problems, posttraumatic stress disorder, and suicide (Dempsy, Forst, 2016, p. 174). There are also specific health issues such as heart attacks, ulcers, weight gain, and other health problems. An early study 2,300 police officers in 20 U.S. police departments revealed that 37% had serious marital problems, 36% had health problems, 23% had alcohol problems, 20% had problems with their children, and 10% had drug problems (Dempsy, Forst, 2016, p. 174-175). Stress commonly leads to family issues, fatigue and alcoholism. The prolonged effects of stress are very damaging to a human being. A study was done on the police officers in Buffalo, New York to see if stressors related to on the job work correlated with long-term physical and mental health. The study was prompted by the assumption that the high demands and exposure to human misery and death has a connection between obesity, suicide, sleeplessness and cancer (Goldbaum, 2012).                                                                                                                                     

Causes of Stress

According to Waters & Ussery (2007), Police officers put themselves in many different dangerous situations on a daily basis and even a routine traffic stop can potentially lead to a fight for their life. Police officers constantly are dealing with people throughout their work day and not everyone they come in contact with are in a stable state of mind. The unknown factor is one of the hardest for police officers to get past because they don’t know anything about the individual they are about to come in contact with or how they view the police. For example, members of the Hmong community are going to react much differently to an officer approaching them than an old white lady. Another extremely dangerous and difficult job that officers deal with are people on drugs like alcohol or PCP. When a person is high on PCP they lose their pain threshold and become almost superhuman. It can take a while for an officer to identify what drug a person is on and it creates increased stress as they are tensing up ready for anything. Officers cannot allow themselves to relax while they are on duty and the constant life or death situations can take a toll on any person’s mental state and induce stress. Stinchcomb (2004) states that another stress police officers have is organizational stress. Police officers deal with life threatening situations and traumatic encounters, but are also required to fill out paperwork and make sure their deskwork duties get completed as well as everything else. Organizational problems can stem from an organization becoming too centralized. Law enforcement departments must be sure to include lower ranked officers in the decision making process. They must feel like a contributing factor tio the department and not just a pawn. An additional organizational stress example is officers trying to take work time off during the holidays. Since police departments run 24/7 365 days of the year officers must make sacrifices and work on holidays like Christmas even if this means they miss seeing their family. However, this can be a great cause of stress for many officers especially the family orientated ones. It becomes stressful trying to make sure you have the day off or the officer with the youngest kids has the day to be with the family. The stress can be compounded to by outside forces such as your wife harassing you about not being home with the family enough. Often overlooked, organizational stress is can easily become a silent killer for many officers.

Another factor that contribute to police stress is their rotating shift work. Shift work is described as the “regular” (non-overtime) employment hours outside of the general 7am to 6pm working interval. According to Waters & Ussery (2007), studies have shown that most shift workers only get approximately seven hours of sleep or less than those who work normal hours and average about five and a half hours of sleep a night. It is no secret that police officers work unusual shifts. Since officers are assigned shifts based upon seniority, newer officers generally have to work less than desirable work hours. That combined with the pressure of the demanding new job can be extremely harmful for young men and women in the profession. Waters & Ussery (2007) also state that rotating shift work is an added stress for police officers because once they start getting used to a certain sleep pattern, they are forced to re-adjust to a different time. Changing sleep patterns can add stress to an officer’s already stressful life and can have both physical and psychological effects on officers. Also, court dates can interfere with an officer’s sleep schedule because court is hearings are during the day. So an officer that works graveyards and sleeps during the day is forced to stay awake and can suffer from sleep deprivation. The lack of sleep like many know can cause mood swings and change a person’s attitude. The profession of a police officer can often involve long hours. Fatigue and sleep loss are crucial in regular functions of how officers’ bodies run. While on the job, officers remain in their cars to watch for possible dangers. Krause (2012) references vigilance and fatigue becoming a problem when the police tasks are extended for long periods of time because it can reduce attention and alertness while raising stress levels. Sleep deprivation in comparable to excessive drinking and has the same effects. A sleep deprivation study showed that not sleeping for seventeen hours impaired a person’s motor skills to a person who has a blood alcohol level of .05 percent (Amenodola et. al., 2011). Officers that are fatigued tend to have more work related accidents. According to the National Institute of Justice, research has showed that fatigued officers use more sick leave, are more likely to use inappropriate force more frequently, more likely to be involved in a vehicle accident, and also have a higher likelihood of dying in the line of duty (Amenodola et. al., 2011).                                                                                                       

Stress Management

Stress is an unavoidable aspect of law enforcement but there are numerous ways to manage it successfully in order to have a long and prosperous career that ends in a healthy retirement. One way police officers can reduce stress is by making sure they are not fatigued which means making sure they get enough rest. Police departments need to promote 10 hour work shifts nationwide instead of 12 hour shifts. There also needs to be plenty of swing shift coverage so officers can get off when they are scheduled. If there were policies or programs implemented in police organizations to recognize the dangers of fatigue on the job it could lead to healthier officers. To help with officer stress levels there are early intervention systems that monitor the performance of officers and based off various factors officers can be identified for an intervention (Walker, 2011). Management would be able to identify the level of fatigue an officer could have and schedule accordingly. Dennis (2007) suggests having managers limit the number of hours officers work within a 24 hour period and being able to set a max hour limit to avoid overtime. Both of these are important for an officer’s fatigue because it will create set schedules so police can prepare accordingly. Improvement on scheduling programs can be beneficial with agencies to help maintain officers at a well-functioning level. There is no way to completely eliminate stress, but one way to reduce it is by working out and taking care of their bodies. According to Anxiety and Association of America (ADAA), working out is very effective at reducing fatigue, improving alertness and concentration, and at enhancing overall cognitive function. This can be especially helpful when stress has depleted your energy or ability to concentrate. “Scientists have found that regular participation in aerobic exercise has been shown to decrease overall levels of tension, elevate and stabilize mood, improve sleep, and improve self-esteem. Even five minutes of aerobic exercise can stimulate anti-anxiety effects” (adaa.org). Other benefits of exercising are that it pumps up your endorphins and focusing on a single task can be calming and clear the mind from the days stresses. According to the American Academy of Experts in Traumatic Stress, Critical Incident Stress Debriefing (CISD) is available for law enforcement officers to participate in. The structure of a CISD usually consists of the presence of  “one or more mental health professionals and one or more peer debriefs, i.e. fellow police officers or emergency service workers who have been trained in the CISD process and who may have been through critical incidents and debriefings themselves.” A typical debriefing takes place within twenty-four to seventy-two hours after the critical incident, and consists of a single group meeting that last approximately two-three hours, although shorter or longer meetings are determined by circumstances (aaets.org). CISD consists of seven standard phases to help the officer cope with whatever traumatic incident he/she has been through in an effort to handle the stress before it negatively effects them.

Although stress is unavoidable in some circumstance there are ways to prevent chronic stress. Police officers can change their lifestyle in order to manage their personal stress. They can try to avoid using alcohol and nicotine as coping mechanisms of stress. These factors can actually contribute to stress. A better diet and exercising can be beneficial by improving the resilience of the body and mind to stressful situations. Also, limiting your duty work hours to no more than twelve hours a day can help manage stress as well as talking about emotions to process what has been seen and done (Dennis 2007).


Amenodola, K., Weisburd, D., Jones, G., & Slipka, M. (2011). Police Foundation. Retrieved April 1, 2017, from http://www.nij.gov/topics/law-enforcement/officer-safety/stress-fatigue/pages/shift-work.aspx

Dempsey, J. S., & Forst, L. S. (2016). An introduction to policing. Boston, MA, USA: Cengage   Learning.

Dennis, L. (2007, August). Police fatigue: an accident waiting to happen. PsycEXTRA Dataset.

Goldbaum, E. (2012, July 9). Police officer stress creates significant health risks. States News Service.  

Home | Anxiety and Depression Association of America, ADAA. (n.d.). Retrieved April 3, 2017,             from https://www.adaa.org/

Law Enforcement Traumatic Stress: Clinical Syndromes and Intervention Strategies. (n.d.). Retrieved April 3, 2017, from http://www.aaets.org/article87.htm

Parker, H. (2006). Stress management. Delhi, IN: Global media.

Stinchcomb, J. (2004). Searching for stress in all the wrong places: Combating chronic organizational stressors in policing. Police Practice & Research, 5(3), 259-277.

Waters, J.A., & Ussery, W. (2007). Police stress: history, contributing factors, symptoms, and interventions. Policing, 30(2), 169-188.


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