There are a lot of articles out there that talk about emotional, mental and physical survival in law enforcement. These articles typically suggest maintaining a healthy diet and exercise routine after you graduate the academy. They suggest things such as keeping ties with people who aren’t law enforcement and not becoming over-invested in the profession. They may even suggest making time to continue working on with hobbies and activities that you did before you became law enforcement. These are great suggestions and they’ll do as promised, provide life and career longevity—if you’re able to keep them up once the burn of policing begins.
Unfortunately the preventative advice often feels as if it comes from someone who doesn’t have kids or a demanding spouse, who has never been injured, divorced, on the losing side of a political battle, passed over for promotion or worked for a terrible supervisor. That makes it easy to ignore or forget the good advice.
In my experience and observation, and based on conversations and reading, most people agree that the initial burning begins around 4 – 5 years into the profession. The hard burn sets in around 7- 8 years and true burnout manifests closer to 10 – 12 years inside the profession.
Burnout in policing isn’t so different from getting a sun burn. At first you don’t notice, then it gets really bad and then you attempt to mitigate the damage. So what do you do when the unthinkable happens and you suddenly realize that while you were busy working you were also burning?
Grab Some Aloe
This is where we are: You just woke up and realized that the job you love is no longer making you as happy as it used to. It may even be causing you pain. It doesn’t matter how you got there. What matters is your desire to change your position.
Burning Obstacle: Fitness has become too hard and unpleasant.
Working out releases endorphins that make you momentarily happy and helps to build muscle and burn fat which will improve your appearance and make you feel better. You would love to go to the gym but every time you do your body is so sore the next day that you can’t walk for a week. You try to lift the weights or run the distances that you used to and it just makes you frustrated. It seems like that skill is so far behind you that you will never find it again.
Novelty Solution: Don’t go to the gym and do what you were doing before.
Find a new sport or activity that you’ve never done before. You’ll have no memory of being good at it and so you’ll be more likely to stick with it as you see new and natural progress. For example, this means that if you used to box, then no boxing or MMA for you. They’re too similar in skill set and style for your brain and it will trigger your memory, causing frustration. Try fencing, gymnastics, soccer, frisbee or kayaking, as examples. If you’re really out of shape, try something that doesn’t require a lot physical ability to do, but still gets you out of the house. Things like hiking, bowling, billiards, hunting, etc.
Most cities have adult recreational teams that you can join to play these various sports. You can meet new people—nice people and who aren’t law enforcement. It’s surprisingly refreshing to be reminded of the better side of humanity. Or you can do it alone if you prefer. The most important thing is that you find something new that excites you and that doesn’t make you frustrated, otherwise you just won’t do it.
Burning Obstacle: New sports and hobbies take a lot of time, and you just don’t have time to spare.
You work long hours, and probably even work off duty on your days off. Working swing shifts causes you to sleep through the days and makes you less present in general. Like many officers, maybe you don’t want to take more time away from your family to indulge in the gym or other hobby. Still you are in need of some quality “me-time”, and unfortunately playing computer games at home doesn’t actually satisfy that need.
Novelty solution: Find a hobby that you can do regularly that doesn’t demand time that you don’t have, or integrates into time you were already spending.
Try writing. Take notes for a nonfiction story or a screenplay or poem—whatever excites you. Carry around an extra note pad in your duty bag to jot down notes so you won’t forget. Photography is more popular than ever, and most phones can work in a pinch. Learn a new language: With the increases in technology an “app” on your phone is a quick and easy way to learn a new word every day. Buy a foreign cuisine cookbook and try new recipes on your days off. It’s constructive and let’s face it: Eating is a super fun, especially with friends.
Burning Obstacle: You’ve been in the same position for some time and it’s just not as thrilling as it used to be.
After a certain amount of time you have your policing preferences set. You have developed routines for how you answer calls, interview people, wear your equipment and patrol your beat. Routine may be comfortable, but it’s also boring and it can be dangerous as it slips into complacency. Moving into a different division (example: field operations to detective) would help with that, but sometimes that just isn’t feasible. Or maybe it was getting passed over for a new slot that started your burn in the first place.
Novelty Solution: Become a training officer.
A good recruit that wants to get into everything and is excited to learn anything and everything you have to teach them is a beautiful thing. It is contagious. Their enthusiasm will cause you to be more enthusiastic. Added bonus: By the time the novelty of that recruit has worn off it’ll be time for them to be released to the next phase. It can also give some good leadership and supervisory experience for résumé purposes.
Novelty Solution: Transfer districts or switch beats every five years.
By switching districts you get exposed to a different style of policing. Basic differences in the political pressure, geography, population density and socioeconomic status of an area make huge changes to the way you talk and interact with people, as well as what projects will be assigned to you. It’ll almost feel like starting over, but with less stress and more fun because you already know how to be the police.
Novelty Solution: Join an external police organization.
Organizations like the Fraternal Order of Police and other charity or cultural associations have meetings and conferences that will surround you with motivated officers and give fresh life to your view of why you’re in policing. If you become a board member it gives you a chance to focus on more than just the day to day and give some more and something new to the profession that made you.
Put on Sunscreen Everyday
You can look at a child and see the benefits of novelty. Who doesn’t enjoy watching a child filled with joy at a new experience? That child wants to do it again and again and again, until the novelty wears off and they move on to the next joyous experience.
As you sit in your car or at your desk and read this, remind yourself: Just because you have seen a lot does not mean you have seen it all. Start seeking those new experiences. If you like answering calls, start investigating them a little further than usual and making cases without detectives. If you like stopping cars, try stopping people on foot. Little changes and big changes all have a positive effect.
Distress often causes people to abandon their good habits and adopt a more confined and seemingly comfortable lifestyle. It is precisely this comfort that causes our emotional and physical demise. Comfort breeds complacency, a word that all officers recognize as synonymous with injury and death. Complacency negatively affects tactics, health habits, and emotional stability.
When you introduce novelty into your routine, it causes slight discomfort that stimulates the part of yourself that withers with disuse. You’ll find that you enjoy your forays of discomfort and that you better appreciate your comfortable times which will no longer be a stagnant waste. You’ll be a more dynamic and an all-around more happy and healthy individual—plus you’ll have a really good tan.