occupational stress in law enforcement – Causes of stress within the law enforcement occupations

Occupation stress within the law enforcement career has attracted various perspectives in literature. One of the early studies (Kroes, Margolis & Hurrell, 1974, as cited in Malloy & Mays, 1984, p.200) on occupation stress based on police officers suggested stress levels to arise from five main antecedents. Highest contributor among these was leniency of the court with criminals and inconsiderate scheduling for court appearances with administrative policies compounded by the lack of support from superiors being the second most occupational stress antecedent (Kroes, et al., 1974, cited in Malloy & Mays, 1984, p.200). Thirdly, equipment aspects such as lack thereof and poor conditions contributed to the enhanced stress levels among police officers (Kroes, et al., 1974, cited in Malloy & Mays, 1984, p.200). Other significant antecedents of stress according to Kroes, et al. (1974) study were community relations aggravated by negative image of the police and shift work mainly due to its impacts on family life, sleep cycle and eating habits (Malloy & Mays, 1984, p.200). Similarly Reiser (1974) argued that the nature of police organizations is authoritarian thus leading to alienation of junior officers (cited in Malloy & Mays, 1984, p.200). Such early studies depicted occupation stress among police office to arise mainly out of organizational (bureaucratic) challenges. However, the main weakness of these early studies was the absence or inadequacy of control groups to evaluate whether sources of occupational stress in law enforcers were different from the sources in other occupations (Malloy & Mays, 1984).

Recent studies however also support the suggestion that organizational factors are a main source of police occupation stress. In a study examining antecedent of stress-related symptoms and measuring significant mental ill health associated with stress in police officers, various organizational stressors significantly differed in their effect between the case group and non-case group (Collins & Gibbs, 2003). The entire survey population also indicated organization stressors to be more stressful than the operational issues; the second type of police stressors identified in the study (Collins & Gibbs, 2003). Case and non-case groups were defined according to the scores in the general health questionnaire (GHQ 12; a questionnaire developed for identifying psychiatrically disturbed patients; Goldberg & Blackwell, 1970); with cases being the individuals whose threshold was 3 or above and non cases being those that scored less than three (Collins & Gibbs, 2003). Organizational stressors evaluated included work demands impinging on home, insufficient support from superiors, lack of communication, lack of enough control over work, time pressures and pressures to get results (Collins & Gibbs, 2003). Other organizational stressors for police officers were working shifts, massive paperwork, urgent requests that prevented the completion of planned work and insufficient support from colleagues (Collins & Gibbs, 2003).

Various aspects such as community conditions could affect organizational factors. The quality of life and social wellbeing of the communities that a department serves for instance determines various aspects of policing (Morash, et al., 2006). Large departments where bureaucratic procedures are entrenched generally occur in urban areas where there is a corresponding high density of inhabitants with high poverty, crime and disorder levels (Morash, et al., 2006). Studies have shown that officers in such large departments differ in behavior with those in small departments in rural and small cities (Morash, et al., 2006). High stress levels in officers in the large departments has in this case been attributed to the perception by individual officers that the large departments are self-serving and unresponsive to the needs of the community and individual officers (Morash, et al., 2006). Conversely, for smaller departments, enhanced informal relationship between officers and the members of the community could be a source of stress (Morash, et al., 2006). Other studies (Buker & Wiecko, 2007) have reinforced this perspective of organizational stressors’ effects-modulation by aspects of community and department size.

Organizational stressors also increase where an individual’s race, ethnic grouping or gender affects ones status in a department (Morash, et al., 2006). When the department mix confers a minority status based on such characteristics, the minority group could face enhanced levels of stress (Morash, et al., 2006). Krimmel and Gormley (2003) for instance found out that women in departments where the number of female officers was less than 15 % reported low levels of job satisfaction. Belonging to such minority groups could for instance affect acceptance and encourage outright bias by the other groups leading to higher levels of stress (Morash, et al., 2006).

Apart from the organizational stressors, various operational issues could be sources of stress for law enforcers. In some of the early studies for instance (reviewed in Malloy & Mays, 1984); stress in law enforcement officers was associated with their occupational roles that involve high threat to life than other roles. Recent studies have also identified operational sources of stress though these have a more subtle effect than the organizational antecedents (Collins & Gibbs, 2003). Collins and Gibbs (2003) for instance identified operational stressors such as dealing with drunkards, verbal and physical aggression from the public, high-speed driving, giving evidence in court, and riot control as factors leading to police stress. Other operational stressors included being at risk of contracting various ailments, attending to domestic disputes, child and adult victims of violence or abuse, and searching for a missing person (Collins & Gibbs, 2003).

Adams and Buck (2010) stress the case for operational stress antecedents for police officers.  Using data from an online survey of 196 police officers, the researchers examined how social stressors from both interactions with the civilians and suspects (outsiders) and interactions with coworkers and supervisors (insiders); were related to turnover intention, emotional exhaustion and psychological distress (Adams & Buck, 2010). The study formed such an association based on previous studies (e.g. Grandey et al. 2007, cited in Adams & Buck, 2010, p.1032) that linked social stressors originating from interactions with outsiders to strain (e.g. emotional exhaustion). Similarly, various studies have recognized interactions with insiders to be a leading cause of stress to employees (e.g. Bowling & Beehr, 2006; Bruk-Lee & Spector, 2006; Hahn, 2000; as cited in Adams & Buck, 2010, p.1032). Adams and Buck (2010) thus based on such prior research evaluated whether social stressors from both antecedents were associated with turnover intention, emotional exhaustion and psychological distress.

The study by Adams and Buck employed various measures. To measure the internal social stressors, the study employed a seven-item work place incivility scale that assessed the frequency of participants’ experiences of behavior such as disrespect and rudeness from co-workers for the preceding seven-month period (Adams & Buck, 2010). Similarly, a seven-item customer incivility measure assessed the external social stressors (Adams & Buck, 2010). The study’s assessment of turnover intent was on four item questionnaire with items such as “I am planning to leave my job for another in the near future”, as advised by Adams and Beehr (1998) study.  To assess psychological distress, the researchers employed a 13-items measure assessing factors such as the frequency of participants’ feelings of depression, anxiety and irritation (Adams & Buck, 2010). Finally, to assess emotional exhaustion, the study used a six-item measure with statements such as “I have felt frustrated by my job” (Adams & Buck, 2010).  The results of the study indicated that the social stressors from both antecedents are associated with the three outcomes (Adams & Buck, 2010). Such effects of social stressors are reinforced in other studies (e.g. Gershon, Barocas, Canton, Li & Vlahov, 2009) thus providing more evidence to the suggestion of operational antecedents being major sources of stress in law enforcement officers Go to part 3 here.

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