Types of Police Stressors and Illnesses (and how to avoid them)

Everyone knows being a police officer is a challenging job that can push anyone to their limits. However, not all stress is the same. Depending on the situation, stress can manifest in different ways.

A study categorized police stress into two types: organizational and operational. Operational stresses are incidents that occur in the police work environment, such as getting into an accident in a patrol car or dealing with a felony in progress. Organizational stressors include shift work, faulty equipment, and administerial aspects of work. Officers are subject to stress in either of these scenarios, leaving them extremely vulnerable to work stress and its impacts.

Police stress has also been categorized as traumatic or routine stress. Stress is determined by the frequency or the impact the stress has on the officer’s overall well-being. For example, difficult arrests may feel routine at some point, while one incident of having to shoot a suspect on the job can be permanently traumatizing.

While dealing with stress can feel like a “part of the job,” it shouldn’t be ignored. Stress impacts both the officers and the agency. Stress in the workplace has serious consequences causing absenteeism, high rates of staff turnover, and ill-health. And all these consequences can result in additional costs for departments.


Work Stress 

It’s undeniable that police work includes high levels of stress. One study researching the impact of police work and stress identified five major factors for police stress:

  • Pressure from the work environment
  • Lack of peer support and trust
  • Social and family influence
  • Bureaucratic characteristics of police organizations
  • Lack of coping mechanisms

Clearly, police stress doesn’t only come from being out in the field. It comes from the organization too.

Coping with Stress

As stress causes many significant issues for both the employee and the organization, it’s crucial to understand how officers are coping with stress

One study analyzed how Scottish officers coped with stress while on-duty and off-duty.


As you can see from the graph, most officers stated that they “sometimes” cope by keeping things to themselves or smoking more. Both are not ideal, healthy coping mechanisms. On a more positive note, more than two-thirds of officers “sometimes” talk things over with their colleagues to cope.

When it comes to coping methods off duty, the results were slightly different. Nearly 50% of officers noted that they “sometimes” cope with work by drinking more alcohol, taking work home or thinking about work off duty, and taking it out on friends and family.

The study also noted that “only 4-6% of officers think that the coping mechanisms they use on and off duty are completely effective, whereas 65%-73% of them respectively think that the coping mechanisms they use are either only slightly or not at all effective.”

How work stress impacts employees, and how they cope with work stress, is incredibly important. Too much of an increase in work stress will lead to employees taking increasing amounts of sick days.

Work Sickness 

Work sickness is typically grouped into two categories: short-term and long-term. Short-term absences are less than 20 days, and long-term absences are more than 20 days. Studies have shown that individuals took sick days, directly as a result of work, because of:

  • A lack of resources which caused extreme pressure
  • Organizational change and bureaucratic demands
  • Feelings of little or no support from the force
  • Negative work situations

All these issues can be directly resolved by management. If officers feel comfortable vocalizing their problems, then management can try to address these concerns.


Sickness Presenteeism Isn’t the Answer

Sickness presenteeism is when employees choose to go to work even though they are sick. As an employee, you may think you’re doing everyone a favor by coming in when you’re sick, but you’re not getting the rest you need. As a department, you may think it’s better to have officers come in when they’re sick, so you don’t have to hand out overtime. However, sickness presenteeism isn’t the answer for high rates of sick leaves in the police force. It doesn’t solve the root of the problem: that the rates of sick employees keep rising in your agency.

It’s estimated that sickness presentism costs companies in the range of $150 billion per year. When employees come to work sick, they can infect others, and they typically have low rates of productivity. They can also be a danger to themselves or others if they are not fully present during the workday. A Danish study found that participants who had gone to work even though they were sick, had a 74% higher chance of becoming sick-listed for two months or more down the road. A separate, Swedish study confirmed that individuals who participated in sickness presenteeism were more at risk for future poor health and sickness absence.

Handling Employee Absence

There are two standard approaches to preventing absenteeism in the workplace: supporting attendance and preventing absenteeism.


Supporting Attendance

  • An obvious way of decreasing sick leave is to encourage attendance.
  • You can do this by promoting health programs that give people the support they need to feel healthy and know how to handle any stress that comes at them.
  • Offer flexible work whenever possible. Listen to employees when they want to shift their hours or need to take a different role.
  • Management can make a point of recognizing attendance. Say hello to each employee when they come in, so they know their presence is acknowledged.
  • Offer duvet days

Prevent Abseentism

If your workplace is seeing increasing rates of absenteeism, you can implement some of these solutions:

  • No pay for sick days after a certain quota is reached
  • Sick notes are needed for employees that are frequently sick
  • Minimum attendance criteria need to be met every year otherwise performance reviews are scheduled
  • While these are all options, they are not heavily recommended. Employees taking long or frequent sick days are a sign of a deeper problem. Find out what your officers are struggling with and try to help resolve the issues. Turning aggressive on people who are struggling will only result in officers quitting.

It’s crucial to monitor when sick leaves are going up in your agency and attempt to understand why. If there are stresses that are impacting the mental health of your overall force, programs and processes should be put into place to combat the stress. Whether that’s mental health initiatives such as workout classes, therapy allowances, or group discussions, something needs to be done. Your officers take care of the public, and its essential you take care of them.

InTime Wellness

To help address the challenges that police and other emergency workers face, InTime has developed InTime Wellness, a proactive fatigue management system with a wellness resource library. InTime Wellness is the #1 solution to address officer wellness from a data-driven approach. With safety alerts, a resource library and in-depth schedule and fatigue monitoring, you can protect you fellow officers and the community. 

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