10 Reasons Cops are Stressed

October 12, 2021

A number of years ago, Utah Peace Officer Magazine published the following article and granted Calibre Press permission to share it in our Street Survival Course Workbook. We felt now was a great time to share it again.

The beginning of the piece reminded us of a tee shirt we offer that speaks volumes. It reads: It doesn’t weigh much…until you put it on” referring, of course, to the badge.

We all know the pressures that come with the decision to dedicate yourself to a life in law enforcement. They can be challenging at best, overwhelming at worst, for you and your loved ones. On behalf of all of us here at Calibre, thank you for bearing that weight.

With that, here’s the article:

Perhaps it weighs only two ounces overall. Large ones may run to four ounces. But when that badge is pinned on, there is a weight unknown to most law enforcement officers. The true weight of the badge is not overcome by muscle, not found in the gym, not measured on a scale. This weight requires a strength and conditioning for which few officers are trained. The badge is not just pinned on a chest, it is pinned on a lifestyle that is different from that of other professionals.

Over the course of the last 10 years, we have identified 10 key areas which make the badge heavy…and a source of stress.

1. You are seen as an authority figure. People deal with you differently and treat you differently, even when you are not working. When a problem occurs, everyone looks to you to “take charge,” to “solve the problem.” Some say you are never off-duty. Even when you are not working, there is a tendency to attack problems and take charge. Sometimes taking charge is not preferable and can cause particular strains in our world where many people like to linger with problems, never really solving anything. Recognizing the difference between a “problem-solving situation” where action is desirable and a more passive situation where action may alienate others is difficult for some officers.

2. You are isolated. The wearing of a badge, uniform and pistol separate you from society. This separation leads to many psychological effects which research shows can create negative personality traits. For example, psychological research shows wearing a uniform tends to make a person dehumanize people who are without a uniform. Just wearing a badge or gun can cause people to act more aggressively. Many officers suggest there is a “role” or “mask” which they put on along with their uniform. Sometimes this role leaks into their personal lives and changes the course of their relationships and leisure time.

3. You work in a paramilitary, structured institution. There are mental health concerns associated with working within a “paramilitary structure” and other mental health concerns in an “institution.” Military organizations require the sacrifice of the individual for the good of society. “The individual” is not a consideration: the “goal” of the group is paramount. In a military organization, the focus is on punishing the individual if he is not up to standards. It is a dehumanizing process to understand that you are only valued as part of a machine. The institution takes the same attitude, only it goes a step further. In an institution, you are locked in a set process and the process is more important many times than not only the individual, but also the goal. When you do a remarkable job of police work, perhaps even save a life, you can still be reprimanded if you do not file the proper paperwork. Both the paramilitary nature of police work and the functioning within an institution combine for a mental health situation that is quite undesirable and very stressful.

4. Shiftwork is not normal. The “rotating shift” is very taxing. Our bodies are adjusted on what is called “circadian schedules” which is a repetitive daily cycle. Our bodies like to have a regular eating time, sleeping time, waking time, etc. An officer doing shift work never gets a chance to stay on schedule. This upsets her physical and mental balance in life. The changing work schedule also changes the routine patterns that are needed in healthy marriage and family development such as rituals like dinner together, “inside jokes,” repeated activities, etc. Because of shift change you have less chance for these rituals. This predisposes your family to potential problems ranging from divorces to children acting out.

5. Camaraderie can be a two-edged sword. Your job nurtures a sense of teamwork and unity with co-workers, what is called “esprit de corps.” The fraternity helps you to feel secure in getting needed support in dangerous situations. It also stimulates a sense of belonging that can create a “them and us” view of the world. This makes the “clique” harder to leave when retiring and makes officers more protective of each other. It also makes it more difficulty to accept someone within your fraternity leaving or being killed.

6. Even the stress is different. Your kind of stress is “burst stress.” Burst stress means there is not always a steady stressor, but at times there is an immediate “burst” from low stress to high stress. The normal stress situation for most of the civilian work force consists of a stressful building process that can be either reduced or adapted to before it gets out of control. Your job is reactive, not proactive. You can usually not control your entrance into situations you face, unlike most people who get warnings. It is difficult to defend against burst stress.

7. The need to be in constant emotional control. Your job requires extreme restraint under highly emotional circumstances. You are told that when you get extremely excited, you have to act calm. You are told that when you are nervous, you have to be in charge. You are to act in a world with a role. The emotional constraint of the role takes tremendous mental energy, much more energy than expressing true emotions. When the energy drain is very strong, it may lead to exhaustion outside of work and result in not wanting to participate in social or family life. This energy drain can also create a sense of job and social burnout.

8. No gray areas. You work in a fact-based world with everything being compared to written law. Right and wrong is determined by a standard. In the real world, clear rights and wrongs are not likely to occur. The newspapers are an opinion-based system, the court system is an opinion-based system, and needless to say, relationship decisions and proper parenting techniques are opinion-based systems. Adjusting from right-and-wrong-, black-and-white systems to opinion-based systems is very difficult and requires a complete change in mental attitude.

9. The “at work” world of an officer is very negative. You see the bad part of society—the criminal, the abuser of the rules. This may skew your opinion on the character of the average human being. It creates a cynicism, a critical view of the world. It is hard to adjust to trusting a fellow human being when so much of the day is spent with people who are not trustworthy. This lack of trust can show up in the way you deal with people on a personal level; with neighbors, with a spouse. It can even show up in the way children are raised, as police parents may tend to be stricter in discipline and more careful in privilege.

10. Even the children are affected. Children of law enforcement officers have a more difficult adjustment. When a child is young, he or she sees the police parent as holding a prestigious, desirable position. The young child and his friends look up to you as a minor celebrity, a person of great respect. As a teenager, the police parent is part of the authority of society. Because teens tend to rebel against authority anyway, this can cause a double rebellion against the parent, both in the role of caretaker and as a symbol of authority of society. Frequently, the officer’s child is either overly compliant because of the rules imposed, thus causing depressive problems or personality restriction, or the teen becomes overly rebellious of the rule-oriented parent—the best child or the worst.

*** If you’re interested in the “It Doesn’t Weigh Much…” t-shirt, you’ll find it HERE.

For a limited time we’re offering it at a 25% discount. Check it out and order yours now.

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