Work-related trauma is, unfortunately, an unavoidable reality of police work, as are the day-to-day organizational stresses inherent in working within a command structure. Unchecked, these stressors have been linked to everything from early retirements and resignations to performance issues driven by a deterioration in physical and mental health. Resilience – the ability to cope with stress in healthy ways and grow from difficult experiences – is critical in confronting and managing these unavoidable aspects of police work.
As discussed in our previous blog, there is no one static definition of resilience. Instead, it is an interdependent system of assets, characteristics, and support structures that contribute to an officer’s ability to positively adapt in the face of adversity and practice strategies that help them maintain or regain their health. As such, there is also no one set of prescriptive policies that can be replicated across departments but rather it is a question of understanding resilience’s mental, physical, and social dynamics. What follows is a look at the research on the subject and what actions can be taken to address these three areas of need.
Growth Through Resilience
Using a sample group of police officers that experienced trauma in the line of duty, researchers have documented that exposure to traumatic events can cause changes in brain function that can be detected using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). The variables in this study also produced neurophysiological evidence of resilience in action. Subjects who participated in exposure-based therapy and cognitive restructuring showed a measurable effect in helping “…attain psychological growth on the basis of their negative experiences”. Simply, this is finding ways to adapt while maintaining a generally positive outlook on life
These research findings, in part, support theories surrounding post-traumatic growth (PTG) – a process in which people who have encountered trauma experience profound and positive changes in their outlook after the event(s). The study of PTG is largely theoretical and without broad consensus, though it has been suggested in research that police officers may experience it differently than the general population. Based on the evidence produced by one such study examining officer-involved shootings, researchers have pointed out that post-incident debriefings and required counseling sessions are useful in helping officers unpack a traumatic event and experience psychological growth in its aftermath.
Meaningful Peer Support
A common thread throughout the research exploring resilience in police officers underscores the value of professional and interpersonal support structures. It is often said that no one knows policing like fellow officers and that the level of trust inherent in a peer relationship makes it a valuable asset in promoting resilience. Recent survey data showed that nearly 90% of officers reported peer support as “helpful to very helpful” in managing stress associated with their work. The same survey showed that even among officers who had not engaged in peer support, nearly 60% of respondents said they would be “very likely” to seek such support if they felt they needed it.
Though peer support is demonstrably important, it is not a substitute for qualified mental health professionals in times of extreme stress. Whether they’re colleagues of officers, departmental leaders, retired officers, or chaplains, trusted peer resources have an essential role to play in breaking down the stigma associated with mental health care in policing. Recommendations and studies routinely indicate that a culture shift is necessary to combat an unwillingness to seek professional and specialized help after traumatic events, which significantly hinders long-term resiliency.
There’s no doubt police work involves physical strength to withstand the rigors of duty and the demands of apprehending a suspect, for example. Physical health and fitness have also been shown to have a close correlation with resilience and the overall well-being of officers. Furthermore, programs designed to enhance fitness show tangible results in lowering the level of perceived stress specifically involved with policing.
Strategies to promote physical fitness can take a variety of non-traditional forms. A case study examining a yoga and mindfulness program piloted by the Bend (Oregon) Police Department (BPD) showed measurable improvements in participants’ sleep quality, fatigue, and physical strength. Traumatology: An International Journal published a research guide examining training and police resilience, which affirmed the value of “non-traditional” wellness practices such as guided relaxation sessions, breathing exercises, and journaling – some of which can be conducted in private, avoiding any potential for stigma among peers.
The key to implementing innovative practices is creating meaningful ‘buy-in’ by ensuring they are culturally relevant to policing and supported by leadership. In the case of the BPD’s yoga program, instructors were either former police officers or had an in-depth knowledge of policing. This was thought to lessen the social pressure surrounding a non-traditional program and create a more meaningful – and ultimately effective – experience for officers.
Put simply: the recommendations are out there for building and maintaining resilience in policing via papers, research studies, best-practices guides, and conferences all dedicated to the subject. The common impediment to wide-scale implementation is a cultural one. The stigma associated with mental health and avoiding the appearance of weakness is hard to overcome.
The culture shift, in part, begins at the top of an agency. Evidence shows that leaders, whether by rank or social influence in a department, play a critical role in the cultural evolution needed to implement these types of programs successfully. Leaders who understand active listening and basic counseling skills substantially contribute to the conditions for resiliency.
Data Science and Leadership
Technology is a powerful complement to these core leadership skill sets that promote resilience. Benchmark Analytics and our First Sign® Early Intervention system utilizes the same type of research that’s advancing the understanding of officer resilience and combines those insights with advanced data science – giving departmental leaders the information they need to spot and support officers with off-track patterns of behavior.