Exploring Cop Burnout: Maintaining Wellness In Law Enforcement Employees

It is no secret law enforcement officers are subjected to a constant bombardment of human misery, public demands, and administrative regulation. Many law enforcement officials compartmentalize these components and address each one appropriately with time and circumstance. However, after continual exposure over lengthy periods, they sometimes fail to adapt to various job stressors which may make them more susceptible to a condition called “occupational burnout”. A name more specifically given to this state in reference to the profession itself is “cop burnout”, fondly referred to as such by police officers. It robs them and their associated attachments (family, friends, peers, organization) of mental and physical well-being, work productivity, dedication, participation, and motivation, among other factors.

Officers can languish from negative impacts to their mental well-being, suffer physical ailments, and even develop serious medical conditions from chronic cop burnout which can even include suicidal ideologies. In general, mental and physical fatigue take over and can create a temporary or chronic condition which is a detriment to the person, organization, and public safety. Cop burnout can contain obvious and/or hidden symptoms and becomes a liability to the officer and the organization if not addressed.

Police officers are expected to adapt and overcome a barrage of abnormal events, exposure to heinous crimes, unbearable crime scenes, images, sounds, smells, circumstances, dysfunction, and problems throughout their career. Additionally, the pressure from society and peers presumes that officers keep apathetic toward any personal attachment or emotion from job related issues. This expectation comes from both internal and external sources in which the impact is virtually ignored by themselves, families and friends, their peers, and the administration.

If cop burnout is recognized or discovered, it is often dismissed by the person and/or spouses, peers, and supervisors. This is largely due to the stigma that officers can withstand this cannonade of negative and dangerous environmental states without conflicts or consequences to their physical state, mental psyche, and over all well-being. Many continue to perform their duties in continuum without recognition or remedy of the problem.

Furthermore, many officers choose self-remedy, denial, unhealthy solutions, go untreated and/or leave a problem unaddressed. In the worst-case scenarios, destructive behavior arises within the workplace such as insubordination, lack of empathy toward victims, substance abuse, and police brutality. If an officer finds no resolution to a chronic condition, he or she may seek to resign, retire early or some have even struggled with suicidal ideology over occupational burnout. While suicide tendencies can often reflect personal problems, this exploration focused on only when job stressors became a trigger and the main cause of suicidal thoughts and/or actions.

Police burnout is not just an individual or agency problem. It is a social problem. This condition not only affects the mental and physical well-being of a person and the work product of an agency, but it also has ramifications of community impact and public safety from negative police performance. It is a realized condition in both the individuals experiencing it and the associated persons attached to those officers. Medical professionals recognize it as a job stressor and occupational burnout was added to the medical field lexicon in the 1970s even though it was studied long before it was labeled.

So what are law enforcement officials doing about this?

Occupational burnout is a well-documented subject. I did find best practices to be discussed openly in online forums, but the resolutions seemed vague and lacking detail. This sparked my attention. I had experienced times of exhaustion where my job satisfaction suffered and it probably leaked into my work productivity and job performance. I cannot recall a time that I stopped loving my career in law enforcement altogether, but there were times I was disgruntled about administrative pressures and caseload concerns. I do believe I witnessed this condition in others whether from my observations or their self-disclosure to myself and other peers. I was spurred to look into this topic further by doing some simple research and conducting a short study, exploring this topic and looking for best practices.

Patterns and trends emerged in the data I collected. Combining the interpretations of the condition as described by several officers I interviewed, a best definition emerged from the group: Cop burnout is a response condition, either temporary (6 months-1 year) or chronic (longer than 1 year), caused by job stressors experienced by law enforcement officers at various points of their career with no specific experience level but which affects job performance, job satisfaction, clarity and judgement, motivation, mental and physical health/well-being, and personal/business relationships.

So what are the symptoms?

Several peace officers (of various rank and file) stemming from- municipalities, county departments, state and federal agencies-described experiencing a condition of “auto-pilot” and fdiagramurther clarified it as knowing the job and able to carry out job duties and tasks, but lacking passion for the career and lacking compassion for citizens. Mental health symptoms include: depression, feelings of dread, job dissatisfaction, anxiety, sadness, mental exhaustion, and lack of desire. Physical exhaustion was also a common complaint. Medical issues arose during various points of their careers in some participants in which they themselves attributed the problems to cop burnout. Those participants explained diagnoses of hypertension, depression, obesity, diabetes, and fatigue.

Many felt they approached work with heavy dread and/or feelings of loathing toward their career and supervisors. They did not disclose any experience of negative feelings or attitudes toward peers but did have disgust with certain citizens on what they described as ridiculous calls to service they felt were a waste of time. Most participants stated they were dissatisfied with administrative pressures, upper management decisions, and felt unsupported.

Despite the fact that the officers were able to describe the condition they encountered during career times of burnout, they all still expressed positive views of their profession and a desire to help people. I reached out to them for suggestions in policy management regarding recognizing this condition and giving remedies. A needed shift in police cultural thinking was most prominent in their interviews and was a consistent suggestion. While all of them stated a stigma is attached to their profession, they do recognize the problem of burnout in themselves and others. However, most of them are left individually responsible for remedying the condition and expressed they felt little administrative support.

Does this condition reach outside of the law enforcement officer and police agency to additional associated persons and organizations?

The simple answer is yes.

But how far and wide does cop burnout reach? Most of the condition was experienced directly by the officers and indirectly by their families. Marital dysfunction occurred in some cases which officers did contribute it partially to burnout affecting their attitude and approach to their problems. In those situations where the marital situation improved, the family became involved as a unit to remedy the situation. Some officers did ultimately choose marital dissolution.

Attorneys and support staff recognized the condition in some law enforcement officials and described a decline in work product, performance, and work partnerships. Support staff explained their experiences with the officers as unfavorable contacts where the officers became rude, “snappy”, and short with them. Prosecutors and support staff all described an attitude shift from positive to negative. Defense attorneys did not see a decline in work product, but an attitude shift. Although some attorneys (both prosecution and defense) saw negative changes, they all felt the officers were still trustworthy and good employees, but were suffering from fatigue of long hours and career stressors. Many saw the personal repercussions suffered by cop burnout such as weight changes, nervousness, agitation, anxiety, and saw or heard of personal demises either marital or other.

Most participants suggested law enforcement departments provide peer support groups, professional mental health and medical services, administrative training and continuing education on recognition, reporting, and intervention processes at the supervisory level, while concurrently implementing a permanent infrastructure of nutrition and physical fitness programs.

Peer support groups were discussed in detail as a necessary instrument in recovery by all the officers. Additionally, most felt it was important for administrators to implement mandatory, (rather than voluntary) , crisis debriefings after a significant event which would be facilitated by a collaboration of mental health professionals and command staff.

Police culture trends are showing a shift toward recognizing the condition and implementing preventive care, services, trainings, and programs for officers. But is it enough to just have programs and services in place? The officers I spoke to felt it needed to be a continuum with constant follow up and employee monitoring and proper management.

Agencies must accept that peace officers are highly likely to encounter this condition and all officers may experience it at least once within the lifetime of their police career. Once recognition of the condition is widely accepted and added to administrative objectives, these conditions might be combated and less likely to reach the chronic stage. It is no secret police officers are subjected to continual human misery, societal demands, and administrative stressors. Additionally, they have personal conflicts and police culture influencing their work life.

This is a social problem, spanning globally throughout law enforcement agencies. Prevention and care are critical in combating this response condition of cop burnout which plagues many peace officers across the globe. Much of this can be done on an individual basis. However, administrative support and agency provided services are critical for success in recovery. Overall, a police cultural shift is necessary with appropriate organizational engagement and oversight. It is paramount an officer’s well-being be a top priority in a police administration not only for the sake of mental and physical health, but also for job performance, productivity, and public safety.