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The risk of stress and inactivity for law enforcement

This is an excerpt from Fit For Duty 3rd Edition With Online Video by Robert Hoffman & Thomas Collingwood.

Job-Related Stress

In an FBI (1988) training survey of local law enforcement agencies, stress management was rated the number one in-service training need. Several studies over the years have suggested that law enforcement is significantly more stressful than other occupations, and just slightly less stressful than firefighting. The Health and Safety Executive organization (2000) noted that 20 percent of all workers report feeling very or extremely stressed at work; the figure for law enforcement is approximately 40 percent. As an occupational group, law enforcement officers have higher-than-average rates of stress-related hypertension, heart disease, digestive disorders, and lower-back pain. Studies have also shown that law enforcement officers have higher-than-average incidences of stress-related emotional problems such as anxiety, depression, substance abuse, divorce, and suicide. One study from Great Britain (Alexander, Walker, Innes, and Irving 1993) noted that 17 to 22 percent of officers reported significant mental health problems associated with organizational stress. Also of note are survey findings reported by Gershon et al. (2009) that if people report being depressed, they are 10 times more likely to report work-related stress, and people who report anxiety are six times more likely to report work-related stress.


Some of the stressors associated with the job are obvious and unavoidable, such as confrontations with dangerous people in life-threatening situations, shift work, startle-reaction situations, and long hours away from family and friends. Surveys indicate that work environment factors internal to the organization that revolve around organizational unfairness, such as pay, supervision, and role conflicts, are also major causes of dissatisfaction.


Another factor for some officers is the pressure to maintain an image. As mentioned in chapter 1, professional image is an essential element of the job. Some officers construe that to mean they must express an excessively macho image. Associated with that type of image is a reluctance to discuss stress and related problems with others. The stress to keep up with such an image can cause various problems that affect professional behavior, from questioning oneself and the snap decisions required at times on the street to the use of excessive force. Add to all these potential sources of job-related stress the perception of an uncaring public and a frustrating criminal justice system, and you have a perfect storm that leads to stress inherent to the job.


Stress and Inactivity

Another job-related stress factor may not be as obvious: Most law enforcement positions require long hours of inactivity and boredom. In the job-task analyses we have performed, officers have consistently noted that they spend long hours sitting and waiting for something to happen without any physical action being required. The lack of frequent physical demands on the job contributes to the buildup of stress. Over time, the ability of the body to adapt to the stress deteriorates, and it becomes difficult to find the energy and enthusiasm to participate in any physical activity outside of work. Thus, the stress due to inactivity contributes to further inactivity, which in turn causes more stress.


The research done on hypokinetic diseases (diseases due to inactivity) concludes that inactivity is both a cause and an effect of stress. The symptoms of the inactivity syndrome - smoking, poor diet, and overeating - tend to cluster together and, as a consequence, lead to the health problems previously mentioned.


Adequate muscle function is needed to maintain a healthy balance within the body, a condition called homeostasis. The stress reaction is a disruption of that balance. The long-term effects of suppressing muscle activity are greater-than-normal stress; muscle shortening and reduction in elasticity, leading to backaches and headaches; an imbalance of the adrenal glands that can affect the gastrointestinal system; heightened blood pressure and cholesterol, leading to stroke and heart disease; and continued frustration at the inability to respond to stressors, leading to increased anxiety and depression.


Although other factors need to be addressed in stress management, the best way to manage stress is through an exercise program. Regular physical activity can break the vicious cycle of stress leading to inactivity that leads to more stress.

Learn more about Fit for Duty, Third Edition With Online Video.