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Problem solving on and off duty: distinguishing between the professional and the personal

Taking control, conflict resolution and problem solving are key skills of law enforcement officers. When a community member’s problems exceed their ability to cope, no matter the breadth of the issue, the instinct and common practice is to call the police for a resolution. In the mind of many, the police have all the answers and the ability to meet their expectations.

December 21, 2018  By Isabelle Sauve

The police are an elite group of professionals trained and capable of demonstrating above average strength, self-reliance, self-control and courage while facing and resolving dangerous situations. Police personnel is often known and rewarded for its “take action” and “fix problems” type of personalities. In fact, officers routinely demonstrate advanced competency in helping others deal with a wide variety of issues.

Despite these noble capabilities, officers are not invincible and yearning to portray an indestructible image and flawless stoic character in front of others can cost them dearly. Society’s expectations of officers to be able to properly deal with everything thrown at them is a recipe for failure – especially when it comes to their own personal or family matters.

Police officers are perceived differently and are unwaveringly held at higher standards than those in most other professions. One officer’s behaviour or personal circumstance is often used as a reflection of police as a whole. Officers want to protect their reputation and the wider image of policing. This can discourage officers from seeking advice or support in dealing with their personal problems due to the fear of being unfairly judged.

Admitting to a problem or asking someone else’s advice on one’s personal problems can be viewed as a loss of control, a sign of weakness, or, in the worst case, as indication one is no longer fit for the job. In addition, in the eyes of coworkers or the public, admitting to unresolved personal issues is often met with negative stigma.


An officer’s struggle with personal/family problems can erroneously be equated with diminished professional capability to help others with their own issues. However, the same acceptance level should be extended to all officers who seek assistance or guidance. Officers should be encouraged and supported to do what is necessary to maintain an all-around balanced and healthy life.

Police officers recognize and respect the fact people need help and it is at the core of their duty; however, they fail to apply this basic rule for themselves.
Additionally, failing to distinguish between the professional and personal life can cause officers to revert to work training to address personal issues. Unfortunately, applying the same objective (or neutral) problem-solving approaches to personal matters may not be conducive to positive results. For instance, an approach effective in dealing with a defiant person may not work for issues encountered with a loved one.

Officers must be reminded they may see the world differently than most by virtue of the job. The sense of self and the role of police officer can become so intertwined they are merely inseparable. To maintain a healthy personal life, officers should develop the ability to detach themselves from their professional function.  
We all bring our work home to a certain degree and it has an impact on our loved ones. Police work can be very exciting, invigorating and adrenaline producing. As a result, it can easily and quickly become the foremost defining aspect in one’s life. Policing is based on a number of rules of behaviour and traditions that detract from healthy personal, social and family life. Despite this, little to no training is provided regarding the importance of distinguishing professional from personal life.

Officers are trained to execute their duties by taking control and remaining impartial. Maintaining emotional distance and minimizing personal emotional investment is important to a functional objective perspective and for a stance to mediate conflict on a professional front. While a more distant approach may be effective at work, it may not necessarily be conducive to problem solving in one’s personal life.

For personal matters, officers should adopt a “softer” approach to dealing with family and friends, leaving out as much police lingo and tactics as possible. In addition, letting go of a need to control the situation and involving friends and family as part of the problem solving can increase the odds of success. Taking a collaborative approach in dealing with personal issues is not a sign of weakness but rather a mature and calculated style with a greater likelihood of success. We must learn to accept that experiencing personal issues is a part of life and is not indicative of decreased professional ability.

Making a conscious effort to distinguish our professional life from our personal life is important. Dedicating a few minutes pre- and post-work to settle in and out of the police role can assist officers psychologically set up for work and then leave it behind while off duty. Maintaining a healthy circle of family and friends outside of law enforcement also fosters a balanced life.

Isabelle Sauve is a 11-year OPP veteran currently with the Emergency Response Team (ERT) at the Almaguin Highlands Detachment in Burks Falls, about 300 km north of Toronto. She can be contacted at:

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