- Common law enforcement stressors
- Recognizing burnout
- Stress vs burnout
- Four tips to prevent and reduce burnout
Confronting stress in law enforcement
Law enforcement positions consistently rank among the most stressful jobs in the country. On a near-daily basis, officers can experience incidents that civilians won’t ever face in their lifetimes. Many civilians don't think about the fact that day in and day out, officers are asked to confront the most high-stress and life-threatening events happening in their communities.
Continuous exposure to traumatic incidents can take a toll on these brave officers. Too often in law enforcement, a "shake it off/deal with it" mentality occurs because officers don't want to appear weak or unable to perform their duties.
Behind the scenes, many officers struggle with their wellbeing as sleep deprivation, chronic stress, and unhealthy coping mechanisms take their toll. Law enforcement has always been an occupation with intense highs and lows. But far too often, officers who experience elongated periods of elevated stress end up ignoring their symptoms until they reach burnout.
Burnout is a significant reason for turnover in law enforcement. Despite long-term employment and an attractive benefits package, the mental, physical, and emotional exhaustion can take such a toll that officers decide to retire early or switch professions entirely.
Burnout is a gradual process. The signs and symptoms can be subtle at first and then quickly worsen due to excessive and prolonged exposure to stress. Actively reducing stress with the right stress-management tools can help prevent a major crisis. Ignoring or not addressing symptoms leaves officers at risk of extreme burnout.
The signs and symptoms of burnout can be divided into three categories: physical, emotional, and behavioral.
- High levels of stress and fatigue
- Weakened immune system
- Change in appetite and sleep habits
- Extreme physical exhaustion
- Detachment from things that used to be of interest
- Sense of failure and self-doubt
- Increase cynicism and lack of motivation
- Feeling defeated and lacking sense of accomplishment
- Irritability and impatience
- Easily lose focus
- Withdrawing from family, friends, and coworkers
- Using food, drugs, or alcohol to cope
Stress vs burnout
Burnout is different from stress. When someone is experiencing elevated stress levels, it is usually due to too much. These people feel the effects of too much pressure, high demands, and a constantly heavy workload. Someone under stress usually has the mentality that once things are under control they will feel better and can move on.
Burnout, however, is attributed to not enough. An individual experiencing burnout feels empty, exhausted, and past caring. They feel hopeless, overwhelmed, and like they don’t have anything left to give. Stress can be an early stage of burnout, but once symptoms progress to an extreme, it becomes much more difficult for individuals to identify that burnout is the condition they're experiencing.
Burnout does not occur all at once and often isn't recognized until someone is completely exhausted. As burnout worsens, one’s sense of compassion and empathy gets replaced with complacency and cynicism. This eventually start affecting everyone around them.
When a person is not mentally and physically at their best, it’s much harder to respond effectively to high-pressure situations. Officers that don't take steps to manage their mental wellbeing put themselves at risk of becoming static and putting an added strain on their interpersonal relationships. If you or someone you know is expressing signs of burnout, don’t ignore the symptoms!
4 tips to prevent and reduce burnout
Burnout negatively impacts all areas of life - including work, family, and friendships. If not addressed, it can also result in long-term debilitating physical challenges. Luckily, burnout is treatable at any stage, and the sooner symptoms are acknowledged and managed, the less negative impact there will be. But effectively preventing and reducing burnout requires a certain amount of vulnerability and a commitment to stress-management tools.
Here are 4 steps that you can start taking today to reduce burnout:
1. Change your diet and exercise routine
Consistent exercise and a healthy diet raise your endorphin levels and help your mind build resilience. Healthy habits improve your ability to cope and process stresses in day-to-day life. This includes limiting alcohol. A high-stress job combined with excessive alcohol use can lead to further substance abuse and extreme burnout. If drinking is an issue for you, it's necessary to take steps to manage it, or you'll stay at risk for burnout.
2. Check your sleep habits
The optimal amount of sleep recommended for adults is between 7 and 8 hours every night. Most officers average about 6.5 hours, and this can often be interrupted. Chronic stress, increased anxiety, and excess caffeine, can make it difficult to get quality sleep, leaving officers more susceptible to sleep disorders. Sleeping poorly on a consistent basis adversely affects mental health and increases the risk of burnout. If you're suffering from poor sleep, meet with a doctor who can help identify any sleeping disorders and formulate a plan to get you the rest you need.
3. Give yourself more personal time
Finding time to recharge is important. Even 5-10 minutes a day of personal reflection or meditation can bring tremendous benefits. If possible, take extended vacation time. In moments of burnout, many people try to do more as a way to ignore or suppress their feelings. But this only makes things worse. The best course of action is to step away and focus on your wellbeing.
4. Connect with others
Burnout makes you withdrawn and detached. However, talking to someone is one of the best things you can do. Human connection and talking about what you are going through can help you process the things you are experiencing and be a huge mood booster. Peer support groups are a key resource for law enforcement because these groups allow you to debrief with other officers who have shared experiences. Speaking with a mental health professional can also be life-changing. Many therapists offer virtual meetings, making it even easier to get help.
If you are feeling burnt out, start by actively taking these steps to reduce symptoms of burnout. The most critical step is fostering a connection with others. While it may be the most difficult, having a peer support group or licensed mental health professional that understands your situation can be game-changing for your mental wellbeing. There are specific tools and resources to help individuals cope with trauma and stress experienced in public safety. With consistent effort, no matter what stage of burnout you might be experiencing, there are people and tools that can help you get back to a healthier you.
This article was adapted from PowerLine, an anonymous mobile app with wellbeing content built specifically for law enforcement. PowerLine offers support to individuals across all ranks in your department. The app provides access to a nationwide network of peer volunteers, a comprehensive content library, and complete anonymity to all individuals who utilize these services.
If you are already using the app, you can find the respective video titled "4 Ways to Prevent and Get Rid of Burnout." If you are interested in learning more about our one-stop wellness app for law enforcement, schedule a call with our team.