It is common to hear officers say, “I can deal with the stress out on the street, it is the internal crap I can’t deal with. Everyone nods their head, mumbles some form of agreement and moves on with their day. I have been in a number of training sessions over the years where the instructor makes the comment that organizational politics are the greatest stressors for law enforcement professionals. Everyone nods their heads, mumbles some form of agreement and they get on with the class.
I am not a mental health professional, but I have been in and around the law enforcement profession for over 40 years and I am going to disagree with that statement.
From what I have seen over the last four decades is that the stress from the street is what is having the greatest impact on the health and wellness of the heroic men and women of the profession. It is the stress from repeated exposure to trauma. It is the stress from the unknown nature of calls. It is the stress from decades of continual exposure to other people’s pain, suffering and trauma. The stress from being attacked and targeted by people who hate you just because of the uniform you wear and the career you have chosen. For some it is the stress of being in a deadly force confrontation and having to take the life of another human being. That is followed by the stress of wondering if they will face criminal charges as a result of the use of deadly force. For many it is the stress that accompanies being injured on the job. It is the stress of seeing friends and colleagues murdered, dying from cancer after spending months at Ground Zero of the World Trade Center attacks, or dying from COVID-19. It is the stress of losing more brothers and sisters to suicide every year than to all other causes of line of duty deaths. All of this stress is compounded by the effects of shiftwork and the chronic state of sleep debt and sleep depravation in the profession.
Does internal politics have an impact? Absolutely. Does it add on to, and compound the stress from the street? Absolutely. Is it easier for cops to talk about, and complain about than stress on the street? Absolutely. Does anyone consider you to be weak and tell you to look for another line of work when you complain about internal politics? Absolutely not. Does anyone expect you to seek help from mental health professionals to deal with the stress from internal politics? Generally not.
Organizational stressors are real. I believe they frustrate us because of expectations. We expect our peers and people in leadership positions in our organizations to be there for us, to support us, to stand up for us and to have our back. We are frustrated by the lack of strong, courageous leadership in many organizations. We are frustrated when people in leadership positions say their people are their number one resource, and then put their people well down the list of priorities. We are frustrated by the fact that often when budgets get cut, training is often one of the first items on the chopping block. We are frustrated by the lack of communication explaining decisions made at the executive level in organizations and are left to wonder, “What the hell were they thinking?”
While internal politics are frustrating, and sometimes leave officers feeling betrayed I believe we are doing a disservice to the men and women of the profession by calling these “the greatest stressors”. Do we need to address them? Absolutely? Are they the ones most in our control as a profession? Absolutely. But, continually complaining about them, without doing anything about them is not productive and then claiming we can deal with the stresses out in the field is avoiding the elephant in the room.
If we can “deal with the stresses in the field” why are so many people in our profession struggling with mental health and mental wellness issues? If we keep telling ourselves we can deal with the stress out in the field, then we convince ourselves we don’t need to get training on dealing with that stress, and we certainly don’t need to get help to deal with that stress.
“Stress” is subjective, and multifactorial. We need to give people stress management tools and training in resilience starting in the Academy and then continually build on, and reinforce those skills throughout their career. As part of this training we can talk about the realities of organizational stressors in a profession of human beings as well as the many other potential contributing factors to stress.
We need to change the too often false bravado of “I can deal with the stress out in the field, it’s the internal crap….” that we have likely all been guilty of and create cultures where it is ok to talk about the stressors in the field, where it is ok to be ok and where it is also ok to get help to deal with those stressors.
Note: In next week’s post I will share some thoughts on how we can address the internal issues.
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