by Anthony Maez
As a 34-year veteran law enforcement officer, I have to say it has been an inherently challenging career – physically, mentally, and emotionally. The things I have seen and experienced on the job have profoundly impacted my mental health. In addition, I used to find when starting a new assignment, the experiences from my previous assignment continued to find their way into my thoughts until I started practicing self-care.
In the past, law enforcement mentally compartmentalized traumatic experiences and we were expected to continue functioning, both on the job and at home. Fortunately, just as society’s perceptions and understandings of mental health are evolving, the views of mental health for law enforcement are also changing.
The popularity of self-care is interesting because it should go without saying that we should take care of ourselves. Self-care tactics seem to be going the route of a diet culture where every month there is a new way to manipulate happiness, be less stressed, look younger, and feel better. Regardless of the specifics of these self-care routines, they share a commonality: they all take effort. It takes time, motivation, and commitment to incorporate new self-care practices into everyday life and to find what works best for an individual.
The high stress environment of law enforcement is made even more stressful by a new assignment. While learning the requirements of the new position, we should determine the amount and types of self-care required to be in a good mental place. Officers can quickly get burned out without a proper balance or outlet to handle the stress, putting everyone at risk, including those close to them.
One side effect of high-stress jobs is the possibility of burnout. Burnout is a form of exhaustion caused by constantly feeling swamped. It results from excessive and prolonged emotional, physical, and mental stress. Burnout happens when you’re overwhelmed, emotionally drained, and unable to keep up with life’s incessant demands. Burnout can also lead to illness, substance abuse (excessive drinking), personal relationship issues, and divorce.
The three stages of burnout are stagnation, detachment, and emotional exhaustion (Chauhan, 2009). When it comes to burnout in law enforcement roles, detachment and emotional exhaustion are where the danger to the individual and the public comes into play. When an officer is detached from a situation, they are apathetic and are less able to connect with the individuals involved, resulting in poor performance. The final stage of burnout is also characterized by doubt in self-efficacy and a lack of sense of accomplishment. When an officer does not care, they cannot think clearly and in the best interest of those that we serve.
Law enforcement will always be stressful. It comes with dealing with the public, responding to distress calls, seeing all levels of crime, and generally putting oneself at risk daily. Misery indeed does love company, and the same goes for burnout. Because negative events affect overall well-being more than positive events, law enforcement officers are at greater risk of diminished happiness due to their above-average exposure to adverse situations. Furthermore, burnout can spread like a virus in departments where the officers and staff spend countless hours together.
So, how can burnout and other stress disorders be prevented if stress itself cannot be taken out of the job? Across the board there are generally common findings as to what tactics work best to handle stress. For example, exercise, going outside, spending time with family and friends (not talking about the job), and eating well are all sensible and beneficial ways to put workplace pressures aside and be in the moment. In addition, some that are not as commonly discussed include helping other colleagues and actively being grateful for what one does have rather than dwelling on what one lacks.
Just as individuals can help combat burnout through the abovementioned techniques, employers can facilitate an environment where burnout is less likely to occur. Department heads and supervisors can quickly catch issues by monitoring employees for signs of stress and burnout. Furthermore, just as misery loves company, so does happiness. Leading by example is an excellent way for supervisors to set the tone in a department and demonstrate that mental health and a proper work/life balance are valued and critical. Finally, because law enforcement officials have so much responsibility, they mustn’t reach the point of burnout, not only for their safety and well-being but for the people that are important in their lives.
Don’t let burnout find or follow you…make your new assignment a fresh new start!
Anthony is a Deputy Commander with the Albuquerque Police Department (APD). Before returning to APD, he was the Special Agent in Charge with the Office of New Mexico Attorney General and the Commander of the New Mexico Internet Crimes Against Children (ICAC) and Human Trafficking Task Forces. Anthony has been in law enforcement in New Mexico for over 34 years. He lectures both domestically and internationally on violent crime, ICAC, and Human Trafficking investigations, as well as mental wellness.