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Police Stress

Police officers frequently attend scenes that few other people have to deal with, e.g.

  • serious and fatal accidents;
  • injury and damage resulting for violence;
  • the threat of violence and the fear of uncertainty;
  • domestic disputes;
  • hostility during public disorder.

They may be trained to handle it, but they are only human. This is forgotten in the widely held belief that they are immune from the horrors, conflicts and miseries they are required to deal with daily. On duty, they do not have the human response of "fight or flight" available to them. When the pressure gets too much, the police officer reports "sick".

Within police services, there is often a lack of sympathy towards officers who have psychological problems. The officers themselves express strong feelings of shame and embarrassment. They may also be experiencing domestic problems or turning more to alcohol or gambling.

Solution-Focus Method for Drug and Alcohol Problems

The officer who takes sick leave and seeks medical help is likely to be prescribed drugs to help with sleeping problems or depression. The medical answer to stress remains the use of drugs, especially central nervous system depressants that numb both body and mind, together with certified sick leave. It is unlikely that a consultation with a medical doctor will last more than five minutes per visit or involve any counselling.

The real problem arises when the course of drugs and sick leave are over. The officer must return to work: the condition remains, or may even be worse; they feel let down; anxiety levels increase. Many turn then to Welfare Officers and Psychological Services who provide a glimmer of hope, offering sympathy and constructive suggestions for help.

Defining Stress

Stress is the general response of the body to any unusual demand made on it - pleasant or unpleasant, emotional or physical.

Stress is tolerated to a certain level. This varies from individual to individual. A person's threshold for stress will be determined by their own internal representation of external events, based on their personality, beliefs and values, and previous experiences.

Damaging stress occurs when the challenges experienced become too much for that person at that time.

The adverse affects of stress can be seen as a protective response to pressure; but without a change in circumstances or perception, they will cause harmful changes in behaviour and physical health.

Towards Collapse

The human response to accumulating stress, when it reaches breaking point, is collapse. Signs of stress can include anxiety attacks, phobias, mild depression, headaches, backache and neck ache as a result of muscle tension, trembling, increased blood pressure, digestive disorders. The officer may display uncharacteristic behaviour, poor decision making, memory and concentration ability.

If the officer under stress continues to do nothing and changes nothing in his or her life, then bodily response will continue to the detriment of that officer's physical and mental health. This can progress to heart disease, ulcers and more serious depression.

Dealing with Crisis Point

There is a combined responsibility for dealing with stress once it gets to crisis point, resting with the organisation, supervisory officers and the officer concerned.

The organisation needs to recognise that there is a limit to the responsibilities, pressure and workload officers can be expected to work under as law, society and technology change and increase in complexity. The costs of increased psychological services needs to be measured against the costs of "sick leave", health-impaired officers and retirements on medical grounds.

Good resource-management and sympathetic counselling by supervisory officers can prevent stress from ever becoming a problem. It is not difficult to spot someone in distress. They should be listened to with empathy and their crisis seen as a challenge through which they can grow to greater strength, rather than as weakness or failure to cope.

The individual officer has to accept responsibility for working through his or her crisis. There are things they can do on their own to reduce the effects of stress:

  • improve diet and exercise;
  • learn how to relax;
  • consider their values and beliefs for each area and aspect of life, aiming to achieve balance;
  • set clear and achievable goals for themselves, e.g. not seeking promotion for reasons that are not right for them;
  • prioritise their work, recognising there is a limit to how much they can handle;
  • tackle problems logically, looking at all the alternatives;
  • avoid unnecessary problems;
  • seek professional advice and help.

    Therapy is a means by which an officer can deal with his or her problems, see things in perspective, learn how to relax and regain equilibrium. Almost all officers who enter therapy are able to return to normal police duties, free of drugs.

    It is recommended that any officer, whether in England or elsewhere, talk over their issues with the professionals providing counselling in their own organisation. All of the above information is supplied by THE ROAD™. The views expressed are not necessarily those of any particular police service. No endorsement should be implied.

    NLP Trainer and Master Practitioner, Alec Gore, served with the Hong Kong Police (1988-2004), where his work included time with the Psychological Service Group and with the Personnel Management Branch. He previously served with Bedfordshire Police, UK (1982-88).

  • "They may be trained to handle it, but they are only human. This is forgotten in the widely held belief that they are immune from the horrors, conflicts and miseries they are required to deal with daily."