Why do some officers “bounce back” from repeated exposure to traumatic events while others struggle, becoming less effective in their work and potentially turning to self-destructive behaviors like excessive drinking and self-medication? This is the fundamental question in research concerning resilience — a complex subject that involves putting research concerning wellness into practice. There are no easy answers, and resilience is not a fixed attribute inherent to an officer’s personality, nor is resilience a state that renders a person impervious to stress or trauma. Instead, it is a series of characteristics and support structures that contribute to the wellness of an individual officer and the agency they serve.
What characterizes resilience?
Even in peer-reviewed articles, academics and researchers admit there is not a broad consensus on a working definition of resilience. In its generalized sense, resilience is explained more as a concept that includes “positive adaptation, or the ability to maintain or regain mental health, despite experiencing adversity.”
The American Psychological Association identifies three primary facets of resilience that are essential in how people respond to stress and trauma. Like much of the discourse around mental wellness, these factors are frequently interconnected, contributing to a system of resilience rather than operating as independent variables.
- The ways in which individuals view and engage with the world
At its core, this aspect of resilience is inwardly focused and understood to be influenced by social, biological, and behavioral factors. The ability to understand stress responses and regulate one’s emotions has been shown to be an important factor. Foundational research underscores the importance of self-esteem, self-efficacy (a person’s belief in their capacity to act in ways necessary to reach specific goals), risk reduction, and openness to opportunities.
- The availability and quality of social resources
Social support is a critical component of both physical and mental health. At its most basic, these are social ties that can be relied upon for emotional, spiritual, physical, and financial support. These can take many forms, with family structures, social or professional networks, clergy, neighbors, and so forth being primary sources of social support.
- Coping strategies
These are conscious strategies used to counter negative emotions that come from stressful situations. These are, by their nature, adaptive methods with no one-size-fits-all approach to deploying specific strategies to specific stressors. There are also, of course, negative coping strategies like drug and alcohol abuse that can diminish the availability and efficacy of other support structures.
Intersections with Officer Wellness
Much, but not all, of the resilience research, is focused on people exposed to exceptional levels of stress: frontline medical personnel, soldiers, and corrections officers, to list just a few. Police officers are uniquely positioned in this arena due to the transdisciplinary nature of the profession. Officers must deal with the inherent stressors of their job, such as the physical dangers of patrol and repeated exposure to trauma. Just as pervasive are the organizational stressors involved with working in a command-structure hierarchy and dealing with the rigors of court appearances. The work requires them to be at the “top of their game,” displaying professionalism and efficiency 24/7 when dealing with a broad range of stakeholders ‑ victims, suspects, investigators, media, and many more with different needs and expectations.
Physical health and fitness have been consistently found to influence resiliency significantly. In the general population, regular exercise is shown to reduce stress, improve mood, and enhance one’s resilience to mental health issues like anxiety and depression. In policing, long hours, mandatory overtime, and associated fatigue are hard to avoid, as are the physical demands of patrol — making the physical aspect of resilience in policing a high priority when addressing resilience in policing.
A Plan of Action
In terms of its relationship with officer wellness, strategies to improve resilience can be thought of as wellness in practice. Resilience strategies are a way of closing the gap between theory and practice. Officers have faced escalating challenges to their mental and physical wellness in an era of decreasing public trust in the police as well as violence and mass-casualty events, some of which have specifically targeted police. These trends were the catalyst for the Department of Justice (DOJ) to investigate the problem to create best-practices recommendations. One of the key outcomes of the research was the assertation that support services and strategies cannot be built in the middle of a crisis and instead require forethought and planning on the part of departmental leaders.
Those recommendations from the DOJ stress the need for effective change management strategies in building meaningful programming designed to improve resilience. Leaders are advised to avoid simply creating new, top-down initiatives and instead emphasize building consensus and modeling behaviors.
Real-world resilience strategies from an International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP) report draw from the three themes of resilience references earlier in this post and emphasize the need to be aware of an officer’s personal needs, the needs and capacity of the department as a whole, and then tailoring professional development offerings accordingly.
First and foremost, officers must be able to assess their own performance and shortfalls and recognize when they may need assistance with their physical, mental, or social wellness. In policing culture, an outdated stigma around seeking assistance can lead officers to avoid seeking help and instead turn to negative coping strategies that have the potential to damage relationships, both personal and professional, vital to maintaining resilience.
When addressing group dynamics, the report states, “…a resilient culture is a direct reflection of the amount of respect the officers inside a department have and show for one another”. Enacting meaningful peer-support programs is vitally important, and fostering an atmosphere of engagement builds a healthy internal culture that promotes resilience.
Lastly, departmental leaders must make professional development opportunities readily available to officers. Departments across the country are trying various evidence-based and innovative approaches to boosting resilience through strategies like physical fitness programs, science-based shift scheduling, and leveraging strong relationships in the broader law enforcement community.
Confronting the Challenge
It is well-understood by most that policing isn’t easy work. The profession is inherently dangerous and mentally taxing, and there is evidence to suggest that those problems are likely becoming more intense nationally. At such an important moment for policing, resilience to the age-old and emerging challenges of the profession is key to meeting these challenges. When considering plans to bolster resilience, departmental leaders must be aware that resilience is not a state that can be “attained” but is an evolving process of continual improvement and cultural shifts centered around building wellness.
Key to implementing strategies for resilience is understanding what officers need additional support and when. Off-track behavior pattern can be an early indication of struggles with maintaining resilience. First Sign® Early Intervention is the only early intervention system that uses research-based data science to produce exceptionally accurate and meaningful insights into officer behavior, spotting problematic behavior patterns sufficiently early for meaningful and effective intervention. Learn more about First Sign here.