Working in law enforcement has always required a great deal of bravery and love for the community. Many officers find themselves in dangerous situations and confrontations that are not a part of any other job. As a quick snapshot of just one of the possible causes of injury, the FBI has released statistics for police assaults for 2020.
Last year, over 60,000 officers were assaulted in the USA and, of those, 18,500 (30%) sustained injuries. 2,700 of these assaults involved firearms, and 1,200 involved knives. It’s not a huge revelation to say that policing is dangerous work.
But beyond these well-known sources of accidents and injuries, there are many more stresses on overall officer wellness that may not be so obvious. The overall lifestyle of policing can come with physical and mental strains that are sometimes unseen, often unspoken, and can often go untreated.
EATING, SLEEPING AND WORKING
It may come as a surprise to some people to find that obesity is a common problem amongst police officers. Policing can be a very physical job, and entrance into training academies requires a base level of physical fitness. And yet around 40% of all officers examined in a 2017 study were considered obese, compared with 32% of the general population.
On top of this, their cholesterol levels were on average 4% higher than the average American, and 27% had markers of metabolic syndrome (a cluster of conditions that occur together, increasing your risk of heart disease, stroke and type 2 diabetes) as opposed to an average of 19% of Americans in other jobs. All of these factors put police officers at a much higher risk of heart disease, which is still the main cause of death in US adults.
CONSIDERING THAT OFFICERS START THEIR CAREERS IN GOOD HEALTH AND THEN WORK AN ACTIVE JOB, WHY ARE THESE STATISTICS SO HIGH?
The answer seems to be largely based on the hours that most officers work. Only 9% of Americans work a non-day shift. That is, working hours that are completely confined to times outside the hours of 8am to 6pm.
In contrast, 47% of police officers in the US work non-day shifts during a regular working week. This limits these officers’ access to food options, and officers on night shifts in particular tend to fall back on snack or junk food during a shift.
Working non-day shifts also has other effects on the body. Police officers are four times more likely than the average American to get less than 6 hours sleep in a 24 hour period. Disrupting the regular circadian (24 hour) sleep cycle is associated with many health problems, including but not limited to depression, and an increased vulnerability to disease.
Police are twice as likely to suffer from depression than other Americans, with an estimated 12% of all officers in the US battling the condition at any one time. This can be due to both the broken circadian sleep cycle mentioned above, and the general stresses of the job. On top of all that, police officers are often exposed to traumatic events, such as seeing abuse cases or dead bodies, severe assaults and/or shootings.
In some cases, police officers have to deal with the aftermath of these events, and sometimes they are directly involved. It’s no surprise then, that many officers are at high risk of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). It is estimated that, on average, approximately 15 % of officers in the US experience PTSD symptoms. But unfortunately, there are no hard statistics on this, and it is not definitively known what the true scope of this problem is across law enforcement.
While police officers cope with stresses not faced in other jobs, many officers still feel that there is a stigma attached to seeking help for mental wellness. Around 85% of officers said in an anonymous survey that they would avoid disclosing a mental wellness problem, and 62% said they felt they would suffer discrimination at work if it was known that they had an issue.
WHAT CAN BE DONE?
Projects such as the SHIELD project (Safety & Health Improvement: Enhancing Law Enforcement Departments) have found success in a mixed methodology approach, including assessment, education and intervention. The project suggests that good habits start as far back as academy training, including not casting exercise in a ‘negative’ light by using it as a punishment, promoting healthy eating habits and discouraging substance abuse.
Departments are also encouraged to focus on ‘organisational wellness’, promoting an environment where seeking help for physical or mental wellness issues is encouraged and never stigmatized. Beyond departmental psychologists, external services such as Cordico can help to supplement officer wellness.
AN ONGOING ISSUE
Law enforcement can be a challenging job, and that’s something that’s never going to change. But that doesn’t mean that we have to surrender to the fact that officers are forced to deal with unique stresses.
Helping officers has been shown to be a two-step process. The first is making sure that adequate resources for both physical and mental wellness are available. The second is making sure that the department has an environment and culture where officers both know where and how to access these resources, and that they feel comfortable in accessing them.