Go to any law enforcement conference or pick up any police magazine and it becomes very clear what the buzz word is right now. ‘Officer Wellness’ is the idea that every cop deserves to be provided with adequate health and safety measures and that their physical and mental well-being is taken care of by their employers. There is good reason to jump on this trend as police officers are at a higher risk of suicide than any other profession. The good news is that the latest numbers indicate that police suicide rate has dropped significantly and is now only 8% higher than national average. This can be largely attributed to the incorporation of wellness programs; however, a lot still needs to be done.
It goes without saying that the very nature of our jobs are physically, emotionally and mentally draining, causing a high rate of burnout. Even more, current events have caused the public, that we are sworn to protect, to become largely antagonistic and question our every move and intention. This kind of scrutiny coupled with a police culture that doesn’t encourage officers to reach out for help when it comes to mental issues, drug abuse or even stress can be extremely taxing on any officer.
A lot has changed over the last few years, with a large number of agencies offering voluntary employee wellness programs. However, the problem is that these programs tend to over-emphasize physical wellbeing and pay little attention to the mental aspect. The other problem is that they are voluntary and not necessarily engrained in the agency culture.
The question now becomes, whose responsibility is it to protect our officers from the stress and trauma that comes with the job? Is it up to the individual or does our police culture need to change?
Here are four actionable items that can be started today to improve officer wellness:
1. It Starts at Training
The approved training curriculum for police academies consists of physical tests, firearm training, department protocol, defensive tactics, report writing, court testimony, and other practical aspects of the job.
While some academies are starting to add a variety course with this in mind, I would like to see a more comprehensive offering of coping strategies, wellness practices and how to deal with trauma. When we equip our officers with the tools to cope, we are setting them up to be self-sufficient, more productive and long serving members of our departments. When we instill in them that it is normal to feel the weight of stress and that it is okay to reach out for help, then we are working from the foundation to create a sustainable and healthy police culture.
2. A Balanced Wellness Program
In a recent study on dealing with officers suffering from critical incidents, it was found that the average cost to a department was $8,600 if early treatment and intervention was provided. That cost rose to $46,000 if treatment was delayed. If that officer ends up leaving the force, the cost of replacing a 5-year veteran would exceed $100,000 according to FBI stats.
Now what if we had a proactive approach that started with training and extended into the fabric of our department culture? What if we had programs that balanced physical and mental wellness and provided continuous training for coping and distress strategies? Of course there is a large initial investment, but the return on your investment would come in the result of employees that remain in the department longer, are more efficient and effective at their jobs and who are overall happier.
An example of a police department that is on the right track is Great Falls PD. They implemented a 3-part wellness program that involves a physical and mental component and an annual wellness check. If officers complete all three requirements, they earn 2-days off paid time. By providing incentives like this they have been able to drastically improve their participation rates. As time goes by, it will be easier to implement these programs as standard mandatory practice. Even more, it offers a balance between physical and mental wellbeing. The mental component covers coping strategies, stress management training and trauma protocol.
Another example of doing it right is Toronto Police Service. With approximately 8000 members they offer the following benefits to all their employees:
- Flu prevention clinics
- Cardio metabolic risk assessment
- Counselling on physical fitness
- Proper Nutrition
- Maternity and parental leave programs
- Paid and unpaid family leave
- Multi-site childcare services with no late pick-up fees
- Emergency childcare services
- A family support service, including critical incident debriefing
- Multi-faith chaplaincy services
- Ongoing stress management training
- Training for unit commanders to help them understand employee issues
- Financial advice
Your department doesn’t have to go this far, but it gives a sense of the direction that some large agencies are headed in.
3. Proper Nutrition
When you’re on patrol there are not a lot of healthy food options for on-the-go. It’s much easier to reach for a burger when you’re on-the-fly. The problem with fast food is that it’s going to cause a sharp spike and drop in energy levels and doesn’t give you the steady sustained energy you need while on shift.
Encouraging your officers to make food choices that are high in protein and have a balance of slow-digesting carbs such as yams, oats and most vegetables, makes sense. The benefit of slow-digesting carbs is that they increase your blood glucose levels slowly. Processed foods such as white bread and white rice will spike blood glucose quickly and then sharply drop off. An example of a modification an officer can make when ordering a burrito is to get it in a bowl and substitute brown rice or ask for a whole wheat wrap. Providing your officers with basic nutrition knowledge can go a long way in improving employee wellness.
At my agency I took steps to ensure there was a limit to the amount of cakes, pizzas, donuts and other nutritionally poor foods being delivered to our staff, and encouraged donors to deliver healthy alternatives.
LAPD has even taken it a step further and employed dietitians. Furthermore, employees that don’t meet conditions for physical fitness must complete a 4-week training course on exercise and nutrition.
4. Manage your Schedule Better
Officer wellness isn’t just about employee programs and offering great resources. If we want to approach it holistically we need to also be looking at our day-to-day scheduling practices.
Are we ensuring an equitable allocation of overtime and extra-duty shifts? Are we strictly enforcing fatigue rules? Are you accountable for how many hours your officers are working? Can we ensure that our officers have the training qualifications to work a particular shift? All these questions relate directly to officer safety and if they are not being covered we are putting our officers and department at serious risk.
Take for example an officer who signs up for an extra-duty shift immediately after coming off a 12-hour straight. It goes without saying that that officer is a huge liability to your department; he or she is sleep deprived, extremely fatigued and is most likely not going to be able to exercise clear judgement.
That is why it is imperative that your day-to-day and extra-duty scheduling is in one system. I have seen many agencies that have separate excel sheets or even use two different software systems which prevents them from knowing (without careful analysis) if they have an officer working too many hours. If you are using one system to manage both you can easily apply the same fatigue and department rules to both and more importantly know where all your officers are at all times.
Other considerations when it comes to officer wellness and managing your schedule are:
- Choosing the right shift length – in a study examining 8, 10, and 12 hour shifts it was found that people working 10 hour shifts reported more sleep and a higher quality of life. The problem was that because of shift overlap there is double the equipment need. If you want more info on determining the right shift length click here.
- Choosing the right rotation pattern – in a study conducted by Harvard Medical on Philadelphia PD it was found that when they switched to a ‘forward clock rotation’ and had a longer adjustment period there was a 40% reduction in accidents and a 25% reduction in officers falling asleep on duty. For more information, click here.
You can offer all the employee wellness programs in the world, but if a basic issue like officer fatigue is not taken care of first then the rest will possibly be very hard to achieve. It’s clear, Officer Wellness is a holistic approach that puts protecting our employees first and foremost.