Multiple organizational and operational stressors law enforcement professionals, inducing such problems as mental disorders, psychological disturbances, alcohol dependency and abuse, interpersonal conflicts, and suicide ideation. In addition to health care and social issues, stress-induced problems diminish the effectiveness of the discharge of law enforcement officials’ duties, negatively influencing public safety. Behavioral, emotional, and physiological manifestations associated with stressful experiences adversely influence occupational outcomes. The aforementioned stress-induced problems necessitate developing and implementing active coping methods, relevant medical interventions, peer assistance and counseling and appropriate support programs within law enforcement.
In the course of their professional activities, law enforcement officials constantly handle violent crimes, accidents, thefts, burglaries, mass riots, and critical incidents, the contents of which are often beyond the scope of normal human experience (scenes of death, injury, tragedies, disasters, and so forth). Moreover, police personnel are frequently exposed to circumstances immediately dangerous to their life and health. Distressing nature of performance conditions entails the occurrence of various stress-related disorders (SRDs) in law enforcement professionals; these psychosomatic disorders and psychological disturbances include depression, anxiety, burnout, alcohol abuse, suicide ideation, interpersonal conflicts, and so forth. Stress-induced problems reduce the effectiveness of the discharge of law enforcement officials’ duties, negatively influencing public safety.
Stress and Stressors within the Law Enforcement Profession
Today, stress has become a source of a growing concern and one of the main topics of the theory of organizational behavior and practices of human resource management. Stress reduces professionals’ productivity and contributes to their absenteeism, worsened physical and psychological state, and well-being, leading to loss of corporate profits. The diversity of approaches to stress definition is stipulated by multifaceted nature of this phenomenon, involving anthropological, sociological, psychological, physiological, and medicine-based studies (Aldwin, 2007, p. 21). Although stress-related concepts are all interconnected, in order to assess stress-induced problems within law enforcement, the definition of stress developed by Aldwin (2007) was taken as a theoretical grounding. According to Aldwin (2007), “stress refers to that quality of experience, produced through a person-environment transaction, that results in psychological or physiological distress” (p.24).
The term “stressor” is used to determine stimuli that occur at work and make negative physical and mental impacts on most people exposed to them. In accordance with recent research findings, risk factors that influence law enforcement professionals are subdivided into organizational and operational stressors (Garbarino et al., 2013, p. 2; Chae & Boyle, 2013, p. 93). Organizational stressors include adverse work conditions, such as daily strain from routine police work, inadequate wages, irregular working hours, rotating shift work, bureaucratic styles of management, strict hierarchy, irrelevant supervisory support, lack of autonomy, and interpersonal conflicts (Garbarino et al., 2013, p. 2; Chae & Boyle, 2013, p. 93). Operational stress within law enforcement arises from the witnessing of violence and death, vagueness and unpredictability of events, criminals’ menaces, and frequent exposure to violent events and traumatic accidents (Johnson, 2009, p. 94; Chae & Boyle, 2013, p. 97). Stress consequences can be manifested at the physiological, psychological, and behavioural levels. Both organizational and operational stressors influence police officers, elevating risks for alcohol and substance abuse, depression, anxiety, emotional burnout, aggressive behavior, and suicidal ideation in them.
Stress-Induced Mental Disorders
People differ in their vulnerability to stressors; stress-associated experiences exert multidirectional impacts on personality and have different psychological effects on law enforcement professionals’ mental health. Being the most common response to stress, anxiety is generally accepted as a normal emotion; however, symptoms of anxiety disorders significantly differ from ordinary emotions and feelings of nervousness. According to Andrews et al. (2009), anxiety is associated with stressors related to stressful life events, threats, or dangers (p. 201). Thus, operational stressors specific to law enforcement can cause anxiety disorders in police officers. “Continuing anxiety may affect both physiological functioning and appraisal processes” (Aldwin, 2007, p. 6). Manifestations of stress-induced anxiety to involve behavioral, emotional, and physiological symptoms. The basic emotional symptoms are tension, irritability, and constant biased worries about work responsibilities, life circumstances, health, safety, and tragic accidents that may happen to individuals with anxiety disorder or their relatives. There may be a constantly increasing tendency to blame others and worsened cognitive abilities. Individuals experience difficulties in concentrating and solving problems. Insomnia, headache, fatigue, muscle tension, gastrointestinal distress, and sweating are the main physiological symptoms; anxiety disorder is frequently accompanied by blood pressure elevation and rapid heartbeat. A variety of behavioral changes occur in individuals, such as restlessness, enormous susceptibleness, hostility, and useless activities. These behavioral, emotional, and physiological manifestations adversely influence occupational outcomes within law enforcement (Garbarino et al., 2013, p. 7).
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Operational stressors related to traumatic work-related experiences elevate levels of depression in law enforcement professionals (Chae & Boyle, 2013, p. 98). Furthermore, in conformity with findings provided by Garbarino et al. (2013), such organizational stressors as a lower autonomy in making decisions, a more demanding work environment, poorer relationships between coworkers and superiors, and lower reward opportunities increase levels of depression in law enforcement professionals (p. 8). Depression is a stress-induced disorder, which is often associated with posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) (Andrews et al., 2009, p. 20). Aldwin (2007) states that depression is caused by complex interactions between traumatic experiences and human physiology (p. 5). Depression is mainly characterized by psychological disturbances in the form of persistent low mood, as well as a number of other mental and physical manifestations. However, it should be distinguished from short-term episodes of mood lowering in response to stressful situations. Severe fatigue, tiredness, and feelings of guilt, hopelessness, loneliness, emptiness, self-loathing, and suicidal ideation are specific to depression. Every initiative is regarded as a burden; positive aspects are not considered. Individuals suffering from depression experience constant discomfort; their performance in the workplace is significantly reduced. Thus, the occurrence of depression within law enforcement entails detrimental individual and public consequences.
Stress-Induced Alcohol Consumption within Law Enforcement
Chae & Boyle (2013) state that “Alcohol dependency and abuse has long been perceived as a problem among police officers” (p. 99). Both operational and organizational stressors contribute to alcohol intake; law enforcement officers consume alcohol to steady their nerves and relieve stress. Those who suffer from mental disorders, such as anxiety, depression, and different psychological disturbances are especially at risk because they consume alcohol as a self-medication. Alcohol intake can really remove feelings associated with experienced traumatic events. Moreover, Chae & Boyle (2013) point out that law enforcement professionals consume alcohol not only to cope with stressful events but also to achieve a sense of belonging within the police subculture (p. 100). However, excessive alcohol consumption leads to serious brain and nervous damages negatively influences individuals’ ability to judge a situation and solve problems and aggravates human cognitive abilities, including memory, concentration, attention, and coordination. The probability of developing alcohol dependency grows proportionally to stress exposure and is directly related to weakened adaptive capabilities of the human organism. While some police officers can gain benefits from alcohol consumption in terms of temporarily decreased anxiety and depression, alcohol abuse and dependency make destructive impacts on their psychological and physiological conditions. This maladaptive tension reduction method often leads to much more severe consequences than drinkers realize, including interpersonal conflicts and suicide ideation.
Stress-Induced Relationship Problems
Stress influences both formal and informal relationships. Stress as a specific human state is associated with the emergence and manifestation of such emotions as gloomy mood, resentment, jealousy, rage, anger, fear, doubts, and diffidence (Aldwin, 2007; Garbarino et al., 2013; Chae & Boyle, 2013). It often leads to social maladjustment of a person and the formation of negative attitudes towards others. Personal judgments contain subtle, subdued, or indirect malevolence, alertness in relationships with partners, negative conclusions about people, and unwillingness to respond to problems. Personality traits of individuals in the state of stress are expressed in a combination of depression, irritability, mood swings, and neuroticism with a predilection for spontaneous and reactive aggression. Police officers with a high degree of posttraumatic stress change the structure of their interpersonal relationships. Intrafamily relationships directly conjugate to psychological problems of every family member. Posttraumatic stress and the intensity of stressful experiences act as predictors of violations of the child-rearing process. The stronger stressful experiences are, the more common phobias of losing a child occur. Emotional interactions between family members are disrupted; a person uses inadequate parenting strategies that affect family relationships in general. Excessive requirements for a child and physical violence are frequently observed. Highly aggressive behavior within family relationships is identified as a maladaptive coping method. Chae & Boyle (2013) state that “It is not uncommon for officers to allow their work stress to manifest in their interactions with a significant other as well as other family members” (p. 100). Thus, stressful experiences negatively influence law enforcement professionals’ interactions with others.
Stress-Induced Suicide Ideation in Law Enforcement Personnel
Today, the number of suicides in the civilized world has a strong tendency to increase in all demographic segments, including law enforcement professionals. Suicide ideation is frequently caused by stress-induced depression. Suicide is self-destructive human behavior aimed at the intentional deprivation of life itself, as well as the conscious rejection of real possibilities of escaping death in a critical situation. Suicidal behavior usually results from complex interactions between mental disorders, specifically depression and substance abuse, psychological disturbances, relational issues, work-related problems, and personality disorders, such as aggression, disappointment, impulsivity, and so forth (Aldwin, 2007, p. 4; Chae & Boyle, 2013, p. 101). All these manifestations are stress-induced factors. Moreover, stress-induced alcohol consumption increases the risk of suicidal behavior due to the aggravation of depression and self-control reduction. According to research findings represented by Chae & Boyle (2013), the use of active coping styles, family support, adequate medical interventions, peer assistance and counseling, avoidance of alcohol consumption and drug use, and relevant educational programs significantly reduce risks for suicide ideation in law enforcement professionals, irrespective of their age and gender.
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In conclusion, professional activities within law enforcement are characterized by their intensity, tension, traumatic experiences, stressful events, and constant interactions with perpetrators, which are accompanied by negative emotional background. Extreme conditions of official activities, individual intrapersonal characteristics, and peculiarities of interpersonal relationships influence the degree of stress-induced problems. Traumatic events exert multidirectional impacts on personality and have multiple detrimental consequences. In addition to health risks, both organizational and operational stressors within law enforcement lead to undesirable socio-economic and socio-psychological consequences, such as decreased public safety, increased turnover, interpersonal conflicts, alcohol dependence and abuse, and suicide ideation. Thus, it is essential to develop and consistently implement effective methods to prevent occupational stress in law enforcement professionals.
- Aldwin, C. M. (2nd ed.). (2007). Stress, coping, and development: An integrative perspective. New York, NY: The Guilford Press.
- Andrews, G. et al. (2009). Stress-induced and fear circuitry disorders: Advancing the research agenda for DSM-V. Arlington, VA: American Psychiatric Association.
- Chae, M.H. and Boyle, D.J. (2013). Police suicide: Prevalence, risk, and protective factors. Policing: An International Journal of Police Strategies & Management, 36(1), 91-118.
- Garbarino, S., Cuomo, G., Chiorri, C., and Magnavita, N. (2013). Association of work-related stress with mental health problems in a special police force unit. BMJ Open, 3(7).
- Johnson, S.A. (2009). Impact of pornography on forensic mental health and law enforcement professionals: Effective coping strategies. International Journal of Emergency Mental Health, 11(2), 93-96.