HOLDING THE LINE
April 10, 2013 By Stephanie Conn
788 words – MR
Wish I knew this when I started
by Stephanie Conn
Readers often say they wish someone had told them about the issues I discuss when they began policing.
“I wish someone had warned me about maintaining work-life balance,” “I wish the department had offered us training on stress and relationships,” or “If only I had known to start planning for the psychological aspect of retirement like I planned for the financial aspect.”
Whatever form it takes, the key point is that police officers feel they are not getting the information they need to be proactive in managing their lives.
Unfortunately, many organizations tend to take a reactive stance toward problems in the workplace. Funding is limited and it is hard to justify spending money on preventative efforts for problems people don’t yet have. This is a misguided plan with serious consequences. Failing to brush your teeth leads to cavities and tooth loss. Failing to prepare officers for the psychological impact of policing has led to failed marriages, separation from policing, health and behavioural problems and even suicide.
These costs are too high to ignore. We can’t go back in time to give senior officers the training they needed 20 years ago but we can start right now by giving officers the training and support they need and deserve.
It starts at the hiring process, extends through the academy and continues throughout years of service with ongoing training. Giving people entering policing information about the psychological aspects of the job helps them to develop appropriate expectations. When they are horrified at seeing a dead child they will know that their horror is a normal human response to this event.
When officers’ responses are normalized, they feel less isolated and different and freer to talk to others about their reactions. Officers have told me that they hid their feelings – sadness, disgust, anger, or feeling sickened – because they felt having these feelings meant that they had “lost it.” They felt as though these normal human reactions meant that they were not cut out for the job and that if others found out, they would be considered weak. Yet, other officers feel the same way but nobody is talking about it, so it never changes.
Education and training that focuses on officers’ expectations will help to normalize several aspects of the job. However, this is just the beginning. It isn’t enough to know that sometimes the job is emotionally draining. Officers need strategies for dealing with this. Most people do not intuitively know how to cope with the constant stream of negative events that officers are exposed to every day. In the absence of proper training on adaptive coping, officers may resort to maladaptive coping strategies such as abusing substances, overeating, overspending and retreating from family and friends.
Not knowing what to do leads people to feel powerless to change their circumstances so they do their best to retreat. Knowledge restores their power.
Training and education should also be extended to police families. When they have realistic expectations about the job they are better able to support their officers and reinforce adaptive coping responses. Many officers have complained about how difficult it is to talk to their partners and families about the job because they “just don’t understand.” I realize that an 8-hour family day won’t give them the same level of understanding as the officer, but it is definitely a start in the right direction. Police families are also impacted by the job and could benefit from knowing how the work will impact them and how they can cope more effectively.
Providing information to officers and their families can take many forms. It could be formal training courses offered in the academy and annual in-service training. Another option is providing helpful articles or links on the department’s web site or in employee newsletters. Information could also be placed in general areas in the workplace such as break or briefing rooms for officers to read at their leisure.
There are several books written specifically for officers and their families. Kevin Gilmartin’s
I hope this column also proves to be a resource for normalizing the psychological impact of the job and provides you with some strategies for healthy coping. I welcome your thoughts and encourage you to pass along to me future topic suggestions.
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