An Individualized Approach to Officer Wellness Strategies
Prioritizing wellness looks different for every officer. Stress at work often results in diminished mental and physical health. Officers may persevere through shifts while suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), generalized anxiety, and depression. The physical demands of the job may lead to chronic injuries and illness, as well. Finally, officers have personal stressors, like everyone else. An individualized approach to officer wellness includes customizing lifestyle changes, coping skills, and healthcare routines.
In Season 2: Episodes 1 & 2 of Off Duty Management’s Officer Wellness Podcast, Brian Manley and Sherri Heichelbech, approach officer wellness from the perspective of positive coping strategies. Heichelbech, the newly elected Sheriff of Spencer County IN, and NAWLEE Member at Large shares her personalized approach to wellness in the form of triathlon training, family support, and a positive mindset. She also talks about her journey with breast cancer and the importance of timely healthcare.
Key Points from the Podcast
- Set personal goals, both physical and mental
- Make healthcare a priority
- Find the combination of coping skills that work for you
- Participate in activities and relationships outside of the police department
- Create strong relationships/support groups with coworkers in a relaxed setting (group lunches etc.)
Creating a Customized Wellness Strategy
A successful wellness strategy may be comprised of medical care, self-care, and reliable support systems. Officers can work with medical professionals and counselors to identify their needs. Many police officers spend most of their time at work between routine duty and off-duty jobs. They may not even consider their personal needs until something tragic happens.
When physical illness, mental fatigue, or personal stressors become apparent, officers often do not have a support system in place to handle the storm. Proactive efforts to create a support system and wellness plan leave officers in a better position to handle both work and personal stressors. Preventive programs and coping skills can save officers from severe illness and crippling or fatal mental conditions. 10
Women in Law Enforcement
As of 2019 women only made up less than 13 percent of law enforcement professionals. 6 With such small numbers of women in law enforcement professions, it is pertinent to pay attention to wellness specifically geared towards women when they need support. Even with good coping skills, women officers may face more challenges when participating in a predominately male profession. With high rates of discrimination and sexual assault, wellness plans for women may include counseling, peer support, and physical health monitoring.1
Women in the police force benefit from joining groups focused on supporting females in law enforcement, such as the National Association of Women Law Enforcement Executives (NAWLEE). With a proper support system, preventative healthcare, and strong personal relationships, women have a better chance of excelling at their jobs.5
Gender-Based Coping Skills
When tailoring a wellness plan, officer gender can become a defining factor concerning perceived stress and coping skills. Women in law enforcement reported a higher perceived stress rate compared to men in response to prominent law enforcement job stressors. Studies show, however, that women lean toward positive coping mechanisms, while men often opt for negative coping strategies.1 Positive coping strategies include the following actions.
- Reaching out for help
- Talking to friends or family
- Spiritual activities
- Medical care
Coping strategies, such as withdrawal from society and substance abuse, may happen when officers don’t have a good support system. Women naturally tend to reach out when they need help. Cultural depictions of men often make it harder for them to seek peer or professional support, especially for mental struggles. 1 Both male and female officers, however, are susceptible to dangerous coping strategies and physical health decline due to prominent stressors in law enforcement routines.
Learning about law enforcement job stressors isn’t enough. Every person experiences the world around them differently. 1 An officer’s perceptions of stressful events, both at work and in their personal life, should determine how they are supported. Some officers may not make their needs known, either. Family, friends, and coworkers may notice something is amiss with an officer and step in to offer help, preventing a downward spiral. For this to happen, however, officers need to form a framework of close relationships from the start.5
Officers should not be expected to carry the burden of repetitive traumatic experiences without proper treatment. Some of the events police officers face daily lead to years of suffering.
- Life-threatening situations
- Traumatic crime scenes
- Dangerous and unstable civilians
- Injuries to self and peers
- Negative social and political climate around law enforcement
- Long hours and shift work
Individuals wearing a badge are often expected to rise above normal human responses to trauma, such as violence and death. There should be no element of surprise when PTSD, anxiety, and depression take hold of dedicated officers.10
The needs of officers vary due to gender, personal life and relationships, and even geographical areas. Professionals working in a high-crime urban area may need different, and more frequent, treatment than rural officers.5 Officers with minimal personal relationships may also need more agency support than those with close family relationships or large friend groups. 9
Working a high-risk job creates a different experience for everyone. While many stressors are common to the majority, effective coping skills vary throughout the law enforcement community. Officer wellness strategies need to fit the unique lifestyle of the officer. Personal goals, whether physical or mental, give individuals something to strive for and look forward to.9
Heichelbech shares her experience with triathlons as an example of a personal goal and coping strategy. She clearly states, however, to “find what works for you”. For Heichelbech, training for triathlons involved daily running and occasional trips to events. During the events, she made connections with other athletes and reached personal goals, such as finishing the race or improving her time.
Personal goals for each may vary. Some may focus on a mental task, such as finishing a book each month or attending an art class, for example. Working with a counselor can also help officers find balance and enjoyment outside of their job. A comprehensive treatment plan aimed at all aspects of an officer’s life and well-being works best.4
Expanding Social Groups
It is easy for law enforcement jobs to become all-consuming, making it difficult to heal from the pressures of daily work. While it feels easier to relate to other officers at times, friends outside of law enforcement can add positivity and offer a shift of mindset. Managing stress throughout an officer’s career can prevent long-term physical and mental health problems. 8 Encouraging officers to spend time with family and friends helps them create balance and reminds officers there is more to life than the negative incidents they see daily.
Wellness plans may also include building close relationships with other officers, as well. Close peer groups within an agency give a sense of familiarity and safety that is needed when times get tough. When traumatic events happen, such as the serious injury or death of a fellow officer, or loss of innocent lives, agencies take an emotional hit as a whole.1 It can be difficult to show emotions around coworkers you do not know well. With many officers working alone on patrol, Heichelbech suggests meeting at a local police station for lunch to get to know each other.
Access to Healthcare
Healthcare for officers may fall to the bottom of their list of priorities. An attitude of perseverance, coupled with mental health stigma may lead to delayed treatment of health complications. Minimal wellness practices combined with a high-stress job contribute to a myriad of risk factors. “Areas he identified that need to be paid attention to in organizational wellness for law enforcement agencies included mental health, suicide, physical health, nutrition, obesity, stress management, shift work, sleep (circadian cycles), and post-traumatic stress syndrome.” 2
Even retired officers suffer from health problems related to their jobs. Prevention tactics to limit chronic illness should start as soon as an officer is sworn in. Programs in some regions include preemptive counseling, officers dedicated to peer support, and education for officers’ families.8 Standard health checkups can also help with the early detection of physical problems, while anonymous mental health hotlines provide a safe outlet for emotional stress.
While all aspects of health are important, cardiovascular care calls for special attention. Heart disease remains the number one killer of police officers, covering a variety of age groups and professional positions. Retired officers contribute to these statistics, as chronic health problems do not cease when officers leave the field of duty.7
Statistics on the number of heart attacks in law enforcement only account for those resulting in death. The rate of heart attacks causing death remains about 1-3 percent, meaning far more officers may suffer heart attacks than shown in reports.7 Consistent preventative care, including bloodwork and nutrition counseling work best to keep officers safe from these statistics.3 Peers and leadership should encourage fellow officers to visit the doctor before something goes wrong, instead of waiting for symptoms to occur.
Preventing or Noticing Withdrawal from Society
Isolation occurs easily in some age groups and personality types. A preventative wellness plan can keep officers engaged with the outside world. Looking at the lifestyle and social habits of officers can contribute to a healthy plan of action. Social activities that may help include outings with friends and family, volunteer work, and joining a class or club.5
Officers often leave for patrol from home and return home without stepping foot in their police station. This can become especially problematic if an officer lives alone. Isolation often occurs simultaneously with depression and substance abuse. Officers with spouses and young kids may fare better emotionally since they have routine interactions and outings. 5 Maintaining activities outside of the home at all stages of life may contribute to long-term stress relief.
Personal Support System
Police officers must present themselves as invincible to confront daily tasks. De-escalating dangerous situations, operating in survival mode, running toward danger instead of away from it, and seeing the worst of humanity take a toll. Officers should not be expected to handle everything on their own. A strong personal support system should remain a part of a holistic wellness plan.
Everyone experiences life events where they need physical or emotional support. Helping officers plan for these times can decrease worry and struggles. If an officer is injured in the line of duty, for example, they may need someone to care for them during recovery.5
Nurturing relationships can be something as simple as accompanying a spouse to a child’s soccer game. Officers can improve their support systems by simply getting involved and enjoying their families or friends on their days off.
Stressful events can leave individuals feeling overwhelmed and hopeless. Assisting officers in shifting their mindset to maintain a healthy outlook qualifies as wellness. While acknowledging stress and working through it is necessary, positive reframing may offset maladaptive coping skills. 1 Heichelbech found solace in the fact that her law enforcement career provided for her family. Some officers may also find the good that comes from their sacrifices, such as community safety, justice, and solidarity.
Responsibilities Outside of Work
Personal responsibilities can both help and hinder officer wellness, hence why it’s important to consider an officer’s lifestyle when approaching wellness. Some people find family responsibilities rewarding, while others find them overwhelming.
Women often report they feel like they have a second job when they get home. 1 With traditional roles leaving women in charge of kids and house maintenance, this can increase stress and fatigue. Personal emergencies or family disruptions can also affect performance or safety at work. Officers can find balance and manage personal issues by seeking support instead of trying to “power through”.
Continued attention to wellness helps strengthen officers and their agencies. It builds healthier individuals and can prevent chronic health issues. Every officer has a unique personality, lifestyle, and stress perception. Adaptation of individualized wellness strategies and treatment options can lead to more effective recovery and coping skills.
1. Bonner, H. S., & Brimhall, A. (2021). Gender Differences in Law Enforcement Officer Stress and Coping Strategies. Police Quarterly, 25, 109861112110375. https://doi.org/10.1177/10986111211037584
2. COPS Office (Office of Community Oriented Policing Services). (2018). Officer Health and Organizational Wellness: Emerging Issues and Recommendations Officer Safety and Wellness Group Meeting Summary. Washington, DC: Office of Community Oriented Policing Services. Retrieved from Office of Community Oriented Policing Services website: https://cops.usdoj.gov/RIC/Publications/cops-w0860-pub.pdf
3. Levin, C. (2022, May 11). Heart Disease is the No. 1 Killer of LEO’s- Here’s How to Protect Yourself. Retrieved December 8, 2022, from Police1.com website: https://iamsigma.com/police1-may2022-feature/
4. Lowe, J. (2020). Employee Wellness in Law Enforcement (Capstone). Retrieved from http://lawenforcementwellness.com/introduction/
5. Manley, B., & Heichelbech, S. (n.d.). Officer Wellness Podcasts [Podcast]. Retrieved from https://offdutymanagement.com/officer-wellness/#officer-wellness-podcast
6. Muhlhausen, D. B. (2019). Women in Policing: Breaking Barriers and Blazing a Path. Washington, DC: National Institute of Justice. Retrieved from National Institute of Justice website: https://www.ojp.gov/pdffiles1/nij/252963.pdf
7. Porter, W. (2021, September 11). Heart Disease: #1 Killer of Active and Retired Cops. Retrieved December 8, 2022, from iamsigma.com website: https://iamsigma.com/heart-disease-1-killer-of-active-and-retired-cops-1/
8. Rego, R. W. (2020, March 11). Building a Successful Officer Wellness Program. Retrieved December 12, 2022, from FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin website: https://leb.fbi.gov/articles/featured-articles/building-a-successful-officer-wellness-program
9. Sadulski, Dr. J. (2017, September 29). Why Your Off-Duty Life is Important for Stress Management. Retrieved December 1, 2022, from Police1 website: https://www.police1.com/health-wellness/articles/why-your-off-duty-life-is-important-for-stress-management-8uRMKcIiiFwZ5UgD/
10. Singo, C., & Shilubane, H. N. (2022). How do Police Officers Cope with Stress? A Qualitative Study. Journal of Police and Criminal Psychology, 37, 984–992. Retrieved from https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s11896-022-09556-0