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Back to Archives | Back to August 2009 Contents 

Stress Management Research at the Ontario Police College

By Irene Barath, Instructor, Leadership Training Unit, Ontario Police College, Aylmer, Ontario, Canada



istorically, research about stress in policing has traversed two very different paths. The first path has investigated the effects of physical and psychological stressors on police officers in dynamic critical incidents that occur primarily in use-of-force situations. The findings of this research have been used to develop simulation training techniques to improve officers' survival skills and changed the face of police training.1 The determination of success in these situations is based on a multidisciplinary analysis of physical, psychological, and legal survival.

The second path has examined why some police officers enjoy their profession and others do not. This research has looked at internal and external stressors attached to the job of policing to identify what causes police officers the most stress and in some cases how officers manage their stress in both appropriate and inappropriate ways.2 Research has looked at the long-term health effects as well as the psychological toll the profession takes on some officers and does not take on others.

Police officers are often reminded that in many ways, perception is reality, and during a dynamic event every officer may perceive events differently, affecting the decisions made and the actions taken. But perceptions of an event are only the first step in what can be a long psychological process in an operational setting. Physiological responses to stress, such as tunnel vision, auditory exclusion, or a higher pain threshold, can be confusing to officers who experience them for the first time in confrontational situations.3 After on-duty police officers resolve incidents where they are required to use force, they may be subjected to parallel investigations, Special Investigations Unit (SIU) scrutiny,4 survivor guilt, and the self-doubt that can creep into the psyche after the incident is over.5

Officers involved in the same incident may be concerned that any differences between how they relate the incident to third parties will be perceived as deceptive. Officers should be comfortable and confident relating their own experiences if they understand what stress does to the physical and cognitive processes. If these critical incidents are not understood in their complexity, officers may not seek out the support systems available to them through their agency and their peers while facing the psychological and legal ramifications of their actions.

There have been many books and articles written about the manifestations of stress as it relates to police work when officers face life-threatening situations. The literature concerns preparatory information, pre-event strategies as well as intervention strategies for after the incident has occurred.6 Sports psychology also has a specific application for police work.7 For example, visualization is only one of many techniques that can assist officers in maximizing their physical and mental performance when confronted with a dangerous situation. These resources are available to assist officers in educating themselves about some of the potential physical and psychological costs of doing their jobs, but educators must lay the foundation on which individual officers can build their awareness of job stress.

It is paramount for police officers involved in critical incidents to understand how they process information and that individuals will prioritize input during the incident at different speeds and points of focus based on their training, their previous life experience, and the degree to which they are experienced with such events. These issues are of particular concern to new police officers and to those assigned to dynamic, specialized operational areas such as weapon and drug investigations.

This article provides a review of two research studies at the Ontario Police College. The first study focused on stress and the implications for performance in an operational setting. The second study, completed in November 2007, focused on the strategies experienced police officers use to handle self-identified stressors in their lives both at work and at home. In addition, the study identified how experienced police officers identify success in their personal and professional lives.8


First Study: Stress during Critical Incidents

It is with an understanding of the issues described in the previous section that members of the Ontario Police College undertook a research project in partnership with members of the University of Toronto's Faculty of Social Work and Faculty of Medicine. The project was designed to investigate the relationships among psychological and physiological measures of stress and the performance of new police recruits.

Method: Recruits completed self-report questionnaires and provided physiological information in a study designed to induce acute stress. A Firearms Training Simulator (FATS) was used to put 84 police recruit volunteers through a specially designed simulation intended to mirror a realistic, operational situation.

The recruits who volunteered for this study had all been hired by their various police services and were in their third week of a 12-week on-site police training program, called Basic Constable Training, at the Ontario Police College. Approximately 400 recruits were registered in the Basic Constable Training program at the time volunteers were solicited. Study participants were videotaped during the simulation exercise, and their performances were assessed independently by three police college instructors after the training program was completed. Before and after the simulation, the participants completed surveys, answered self-assessment questionnaires, and responded to questions posed by researchers.

Demographic information was obtained through a brief questionnaire. Next, the Impact of Events Scale–Revised (IES-R), the Critical Incident History Questionnaire (CIHQ), the Social Provisions Scale (SPS), and the State-Trait Anxiety Inventory (STAI) were administered. In addition to baseline testing, the STAI was also administered immediately after the simulation and at 20- and 30-minute intervals following the simulation. Stress levels of the participants were assessed using saliva samples for cortisol levels at several times throughout the study session,9 and participants' heart rates were continuously monitored by way of a mobile heart rate monitor strapped to the chest. Participants were assigned a number to protect their identities. None of the information gathered was used in any way to assess the capabilities of the students as it related to their participation in the Basic Constable Training program.

Due to the inexperience of the volunteers and the early stage of their training in the law, the session started with participants being briefed on the legal authorities of police officers when responding to 9-1-1 calls for service from the public. The ensuing FATS scenario involved participants responding to an unknown 9-1-1 emergency call, with a female complainant requesting assistance. Upon arrival, the participants, each acting alone, were confronted by an aggressive male, who initially refused them entry to the apartment. Access to the confined apartment hallway was obtained when some attempts at communication were demonstrated and/or statements were made about the legal authority to enter. Each participant entering the main room of the apartment saw an unresponsive female victim on the floor, while the male provided inculpatory statements about having struck the female. Participants were forced to prioritize and handle several issues, including providing medical attention for the victim, ensuring their own safety calling for assistance, and detaining or arresting the male suspect.

At a later date, assessors independently observed and rated the videotaped performances on participants’ ability to gain entry to the premises in a lawful manner, officer and victim safety issues, the officers’ knowledge of their legal authorities to act, and their ability to communicate with the persons in the scenario and with the dispatcher. Recruits' performances were also assessed on a relative percentage rating scale measuring the ability to obtain and maintain control of the situation, communication skills, judgment, and overall performance.

Study Results: Cortisol levels were correlated with heart rates, participants' self-assessments, and the assessments of the performance assessors. The level of physiological stress experienced by participants did not affect their performance, despite the results showing that the simulation was stressful enough to cause significant elevations in heart rate and cortisol levels. The students were, for the most part, able to complete the assignment with a reasonable level of competence based on their experience and training, but there were participants at both ends of the effectiveness spectrum. An interesting element that factored into the participants’ vulnerability to psychological stress was the level of social support—for example, stable and caring relationships with family, friends, and coworkers—they had available. From this research, it is reasonable to conclude that the lower the level of social support available, the more difficulty an officer has in dealing with critical events that occur on the job.

One year after the study was completed, a follow-up survey was conducted with the original participants. Results from the follow-up indicate that support systems available to officers serve as important moderators of posttraumatic distress, and the best predictor of posttraumatic distress is how much stress participants felt during the training.

Finally, by way of physiological and psychological links to stress, it appears those who self-reported having previous critical incident experience had higher sustained levels of cortisol in their system for a longer period of time after the simulation event. This may have implications for officers' abilities to decompress after a critical incident when they have previous life experiences that have caused them significant psychological and physiological stress through trauma. For example, it is reasonable to expect that as officers continue in their careers, they will accumulate an increasing number of stressful experiences. The research suggests that experienced officers may have more difficulty decompressing from stressful incidents, which could have long-term effects. Although there is already a significant amount of research on the effects of stress related to policing,10 this is another area for future study.


Second Study: Job Satisfaction

Policing is a dynamic profession that attracts people who seek out challenging and interesting work. Mortality statistics from Statistics Canada suggest the current average lifespan of Canadian men is 78 years. According to Ontario Provincial Police Association statistics, for police officers, that number has shot up from 54 years in 1985 to 74 years in 2005. Police officers who are contented in their lives at home and at work have a better chance to live life to its fullest. But when officers are dissatisfied, the first step in improving the situation is to acknowledge a problem exists, then try to understand why, and finally ask what can be done to solve it. The Ontario Police College recognizes that people can be more productive at work when they are successfully managing job stress and enjoying both their careers and their lives outside of policing.

This second path of stress research has examined cognitive and behavioral aspects of job satisfaction and the day-to-day business of police work, professionalism, attitude, and lifestyle. The literature identifies sources of stress for police officers, the strategies used to handle the stress, and the fact that stress can sometimes create cognitive distortions that affect officers’ ability to make decisions.11 Other research in this area has focused on the distinctions made between stressors that are internal (such as administrative and organizational factors) and external (media scrutiny and public review) to the policing profession. 12 Much of the research in this area depends on anecdotal evidence and survey results.

Purpose of the Study: In the area of stress management and job satisfaction, the Ontario Police College has undertaken a survey of experienced police officers in all areas of policing and from police services of all sizes.13 The purpose of this survey was to help identify how these officers define success inside and outside of their profession, how they feel about their current assignments, what areas of their work create the largest source of stress, and what strategies they are currently using to manage that stress.

Currently, recruits receive training on critical incident stress identification and management techniques related to their new profession. Officers taking some senior courses (for example, Drug Investigation and Sexual Assault Investigation courses), receive information on the physical and psychological impact of stress in dynamic and cumulative situations. Given feedback from these courses and in-class discussions, the research survey was designed and undertaken as a long-term analysis. The purpose of the survey is twofold. First, the survey tested the idea that the majority of occupational stress in policing comes from internal (organizational) and not from external sources. Second, the responses assisted in identifying job satisfaction factors and stress management techniques that could be transferred to others for their use.

Results: The study, conducted online at the Ontario Police College from November 2005 to November 2007, included input from 218 experienced police officers. Respondents included 171 men and 46 women. Of the respondent group, 51.8 percent were constables; 41.8 percent were detectives or sergeants; and the remaining participants held the rank of inspector or above. As for experience, 48.2 percent had served 3 to 9 years; 22 percent had served 10 to 16 years; and the remaining respondents had 17 years or more of experience. More than one in four respondents—26.6 percent—indicated that they had changed police services at least once.

The survey’s results (N = 218; November 2007) suggest several interesting trends. In other research studies, contented police officers identify their families as being the priority in their lives. This suggests they have a strong support system in place. This finding is in line with the findings from the present survey of experienced police officers from Ontario police services.

The survey results reveal that experienced officers are still passionate about the work they do, having retained the noble purposes of serving their communities and protecting vulnerable members. They love their work but are sometimes frustrated by perceived inequities in the administrative processes of their police agencies. Officers who identify themselves as having a high level of job satisfaction appear to handle the day-to-day cumulative stressors of police work by being involved with their families and their communities, pursuing self-development, and following a healthy lifestyle.

Career success is identified as receiving systemic acknowledgment through promotion for most officers who are at the first two levels of the rank structure. For most officers, this involves a promotion to the rank of sergeant. This is potentially problematic because the higher a person progresses in rank, the greater the competition for a limited number of positions becomes, which can lead to frustration on the part of those who are passed over.

In the current study, experienced police officers also consistently identified internal stressors and the administrative aspects of the job (such as paperwork, scheduling time off, court schedules, lack of available equipment, and unfair promotional practices) as creating the most significant distress for them. The manifestations of this distress range from minor irritation to self-destructive behavior such as substance abuse or engagement in unethical behavior. The interesting aspect of the available research is how significant the difference is between the amounts of stress officers attribute to organizational stressors versus external stressors.

Analysis of those officers who have changed police services indicates that most were looking for something intangibly better or an administrative system that has more equity built in, whereas others have moved to improve the quality of their family lives. This research has contributed to the development of career and performance management training. Strategies officers are using to deal positively with job stress have been identified, and researchers are examining if some of those skills are transferable to officers who are struggling. This way, all officers would have a chance to make good lifestyle and attitudinal decisions. In addition, if recruits are taught how to identify stress in themselves and their coworkers and are provided with stress management strategies, problems might be stopped before they start. Finally, police leaders could identify those areas of their administrative processes that are causing the most stress for their personnel and make adjustments where possible and appropriate.

With the final analysis complete, the research partnership has identified a list of specific sources of stress for officers and the strategies they use to deal with stress in positive ways as a first step toward improving the level of job satisfaction for every officer. All police officers should have the opportunity to enjoy their careers while providing a good life for their families until they move into a productive, successful retirement.

This article is the opinion of the author and does not reflect the opinions of the Ontario Police College or the Ministry of Community Safety and Correctional Services. ■

Notes:

1See Bruce K. Siddle, PPCT Defensive Tactics Student Manual (Belleview, Illlnois: PPCT Management Systems, 1998); Alexis Artwohl and Loren W. Christensen, Deadly Force Encounters: What Cops Need to Know to Mentally and Physically to Prepare for and Survive a Gunfight (Boulder, Colorado: Paladin Press, 1997); and Dave Grossman and Loren W. Christensen, On Combat: The Psychology and Physiology of Deadly Conflict in War and in Peace (Belleview, Illinois: PPCT Management Systems, 2004).
2See Artwohl and Christensen, Deadly Force Encounters; Kevin M. Gilmartin, Emotional Survival for Law Enforcement: A Guide for Police Officers and Their Families (Tucson, Arizona: E-S Press, 2002); Allen R. Kates, CopShock: Surviving Posttraumattic Stress Disorder (PTSD) (Tucson, Arizona: Holbrook Street Press, 1999); Katherine W. Ellison, Stress and the Police Officer (Springfield, Illinois: Charles C. Thomas, 2004); and John M. Violanti et al., Posttraumatic Stress Intervention: Challenges, Issues and Perspectives (Springfield, Illinois: Charles C. Thomas, 2000).
3See Artwohl and Christensen, Deadly Force Encounters; and Siddle, PPCT Defensive Tactics Student Manual.
4The SIU (www.siu.on.ca) is an independent investigative body that is mandated to maintain confidence in Ontario police services by assuring the public that police actions resulting in serious injury or death are subjected to rigorous, independent investigations.
5See Artwohl and Christensen, Deadly Force Encounters; Kates, CopShock; Grossman and Christensen, On Combat; and Violanti et al., Posttraumatic Stress Intervention.
6For pre-event strategies, see Artwohl and Christensen, Deadly Force Encounters; and Grossman and Christensen, On Combat. For intervention strategies, see George S. Everly and Jeffrey T. Mitchell, Critical Incident Stress Management: A New Era and Standard of Care in Crisis Intervention, vol. 2, Innovations in Disaster and Trauma Psychology (Ellicott City, Maryland: Chevron, 1997); Jeffrey T. Mitchell and George S. Everly, CISM: The Basic Course Workbook (Ellicott City, Maryland: International CIS Foundation, 1998); Violanti et al., Posttraumatic Stress Intervention; and Kates, CopShock.
7See Terry Orlick, In Pursuit of Excellence: How to Win in Sport and Life through Mental Training, 3rd ed. (Champaign, Illinois: Human Kinetics, 2000); Judy M. McDonald, Gold Medal Policing: Mental Readiness for Performance Excellence (New York: Sloan Associate Press, 2006); and Shane Murphy, ed., The Sport Psych Handbook (Champaign, Illinois: Human Kinetics, 2005).
8The research partnership consisted of the following members: Cheryl Regehr, Ph.D., professor and dean of the Faculty of Social Work and Sandra Rotman Chair, University of Toronto; Vicki LeBlanc, Ph.D., assistant professor in the Faculty of Medicine and scientist at the Wilson Centre for Research in Education, both in the Faculty of Medicine, University of Toronto; R. Blake Jelley, Ph.D., formerly of the Ontario Police College Research and Evaluations Unit and currently professor at the School of Business Administration at the University of Prince Edward Island; and the author. In addition to the four primary coordinators, numerous students and staff from both the University of Toronto and the Ontario Police College volunteered their time and expertise to assist with this study. This groundbreaking research collaboration led to a presentation in 2006 at the Annual Conference for the American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law. In addition, articles by the four members of the research team have been accepted for publication in three psychology journals.
9Cortisol, often identified as the “stress hormone,” is secreted by the adrenal gland in response to stressful stimuli perceived either physically or psychologically. Small increases in cortisol can have some limited positive effects, such as decreasing pain sensitivity while increasing memory and immune system function. The long-term effects of sustained cortisol infusion, however, have produced some negative results, such as impaired cognitive performance, decreased bone density and muscle tissue, and increased body fat retention.
10Gilmartin, Emotional Survival for Law Enforcement; Lawrence N. Blum, Force under Pressure: How Cops Live and Why They Die (New York: Lantern Books, 2000); and Violanti et al., Posttraumatic Stress Intervention.
11Edward Delattre, Character and Cops: Ethics in Policing (Washington, D.C.: AEI Press, 2006); Gilmartin, Emotional Survival for Law Enforcement; Stephen Covey, Seven Habits of Highly Effective Police Officers (Salt Lake City, Utah: FranklinCovey, 2005); Blum, Force Under Pressure; and Patricia M. Fisher, The Manager's Guide to Stress, Burnout and Trauma in Law Enforcement (Victoria, British Columbia: Spectrum Press, 2001).
12Fisher, Manager's Guide to Stress in Law Enforcement; Violanti et al., Posttraumatic Stress Intervention; and Susan Cartwright and Cary Cooper, Managing Workplace Stress (Thousand Oaks, California: Sage Publications, 1997).
13The study was undertaken with the assistance of Instructor Ramona Morris of the Research and Evaluation Unit at the Ontario Police College.


Common Survey Responses

The two or three most common responses to five survey questions relating to job satisfaction and career management are listed (in order of frequency) as follows:

1. The most satisfying thing about my career is . . .

a. helping people.
b. the job itself.
c. coworkers.

2. Before I retire from policing I would like to . . .

a. be promoted.
b. manage a major investigation.
c. make a positive contribution to my profession.

3. The biggest source of stress for me at work is . . .

a. administration.
b. lack of resources.

4. My top reasons for retiring are . . .

a. I’m ready to retire.
b. stress.
c. work-life balance.

5. My top reasons for leaving my police service are . . .

a. family.
b. management and work environment.
c. a lack of opportunity for a leadership role.

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From The Police Chief, vol. LXXVI, no. 8, August 2009. Copyright held by the International Association of Chiefs of Police, 515 North Washington Street, Alexandria, VA 22314 USA.








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