Apr 24 2012 OTTAWA - Canada's police officers may be well-paid, but they are paying dearly in terms of their mental and physical health, according to the findings of a major study of officer wellness to be released Tuesday by Ottawa's Carleton University.
The study, believed to be the first of its kind in Canada, says officers are stressed-out and stretched thin like never before — facing long hours, constantly changing shifts, understaffing, more complex caseloads and a lack of career-development opportunities, as well as growing family pressures at home.
Managers can no longer expect officers to "suck it up," the researchers warn, adding that police agencies likely will see greater absenteeism, more long-term disability and benefits payouts, and more difficulties attracting and retaining officers if they ignore these work-life balance issues.
"I'm afraid a lot of the young people won't stay," Linda Duxbury, a professor at Carleton University's Sprott School of Business, told Postmedia News.
While employees in other professions do deal with a lot of stress, "police perform work that is often life-and-death and requires split-second decision making," Duxbury said.
"High stress in this profession as such is potentially more catastrophic in its consequences."
Carol Allison-Burra, president of the Canadian Association of Police Boards, said the study's findings should serve as a wake-up call.
Traditionally, police boards have focused on how to sustain policing only from an economic point of view, she said. The study shows that human resources need to be addressed as well.
While boards typically don't meddle in police operations, they can play a role in pushing police chiefs and senior managers to develop a culture that is more supportive of employees and is transparent, she said.
"This is a report that shouldn't sit unread nor unimplemented."
Duxbury and her research partner, Christopher Higgins, a professor at the Richard Ivey School of Business at Western University in London, Ont., collected survey data from 4,500 officers from 25 police agencies.
Seventy-five per cent were men between the ages of 30 and 45. Most were married or living with a partner and had children at home, and two-thirds also were caring for one or more elderly dependents. About half were in dual-career households.
Two-thirds of officers said they were satisfied with their jobs, particularly in terms of job security and pay. Fifty-two per cent earned between $80,000 and $99,000 and 38 per cent earned $100,000 or more.
However, half of the officers surveyed reported high stress levels and 46 per cent reported moderate stress levels. Two-thirds of officers miss about 14 days of work each year, mainly due to health problems or fatigue.
One key gripe was the sheer volume of work. The study found that officers are typically working 53.5 hours each week and are dealing with multiple competing and complex demands, such as completing reports and preparing court cases, where everything is supposed to be treated as a priority.
Forty per cent of respondents said the work overload has been aggravated by understaffing in their areas.
Also, officers don't know what's going to be thrown at them each day and they have little control over their work schedules, the study found. Many officers work rotating shifts, meaning their start and finish times are always changing, something that can lead to exhaustion and problems at home. As well, officers are sometimes required to attend court hearings on their days off.
"They don't want more money, they want a life," Duxbury said.
The problem is that today's policing culture still largely emphasizes work over family, and seeking help or saying "no" is frowned upon, the study found. Managers also are failing to provide enough opportunities for officers to feel they can grow within their organizations.
But a cultural shift is beginning to happen, some police officials insist.
Charles Bordeleau, chief of the Ottawa Police Service, said in an interview that his agency has given some officers the option of working fixed-day or night shifts, so they're not constantly rotating through different schedules.
The service also has introduced a limit of five to seven years for how long officers can spend in particular units to give other officers a chance at those roles.
It is also giving officers opportunities to visit holistic health specialists who will assess and give them guidance on such topics as mental health to nutrition.
"In order to make sure we are doing the best job we can, we need to make sure our officers are mentally prepared and physically able to do the best they can," Bordeleau said.
Dave Ross, acting superintendent and director of human resources at the Ontario Provincial Police, said officers are encouraged to take advantage of employee-assistance programs. There are also teams in place across the province to provide support for officers and their spouses following critical or high-stress incidents to help reduce the "mental baggage" that officers take home.
"We're really trying to open that up, so people feel free to come forward without fear of being ostracized," Ross said.
Tom Stamatakis, president of the Vancouver Police Union, said the Vancouver Police Department is offering more flexibility in work hours. Officers who work in high-risk or high-stress beats, such as child-pornography investigations, are now required to attend mandatory sessions with health professionals.