Policing is a highly stressful job. These first responders put themselves at risk both physically and psychologically in carrying out the job. It is not surprising that rates of post traumatic stress is high for police officers. A recent study by April Schantz, Stefany Coxe, and Valentina Bruk-Lee. published in the peer-reviewed journal Policing: An International Journal explored how sources of social support is important for police stress.
The Stress of Policing
Stress is a part of both our working and nonworking lives, and cannot be totally avoided. Some occupations, however, have an unusually high level of stress because of threats to personal safety or exposure to the suffering of others. Police officers are subject to both of these and more. The major sources of stress for a police office include the following.
- Personal Danger: Some of the activities of police officers can put their lives at risk. The two leading causes of line of duty fatalities for police officers are homicide and motor vehicle accident. Police officers who engage potentially aggressive individuals or spend their shifts in a car are at particular risk.
- Dealing with People in Distress: Most police officers do their jobs to help people, and it can be highly disturbing to encounter people who have been injured or killed. Officers can experience vicarious trauma when dealing with these issues.
- Mistreatment By the Public: Police officers are required to maintain their cool in the face of emotional abuse by the public. Even routine stops for minor violations can expose officers to emotional abuse by a citizen. Although it is only verbal, mistreatment can have serious effects on people. Negative comments towards police in general found in the media can have a detrimental effect as well.
- Having to Control Emotions: Policing can be emotional work. In a single shift an officer might experience fear during a violent confrontation, anger over being disrespected, and sadness at encountering a physically abused child. Officers are expected to remain calm and in control, as they are responsible for professionally handing every situation. The consequences for losing control can be catastrophic, not only for the individual officer, but for the public.
Social Support Is Important for Police Stress
The Schantz team surveyed 162 police officers about their social support sources and their emotional well-being. Included were measures of burnout and job satisfaction as indicators of well-being. They asked officers about seven sources of social support both on and off the job that fell into three categories.
- Work-related: This included social support from other officers, supervisors, and the chief.
- Kinship: This category consisted of significant others, family, and friends.
- Community: This included members of the local community and media.
Results showed that officers relied on all seven forms of support, with kinship and work-related being the most often relied upon. Interestingly, officers mentioned local community and even the local media as sources. Furthermore, all social support sources but significant other were associated with job satisfaction. The absence of all seven sources were associated with burnout. Taken together, these findings support the idea that having social support can boost job satisfaction and help reduce burnout for police officers.
Policing is a tough job, so social support is particularly important. Not surprisingly, support from people at work and home are important. What is less obvious is that officers need to feel support from the larger community to help them cope with the stress of the job. Police officers who risk their physical and mental health in doing their jobs need to feel that the public appreciates their sacrifice.