Friday, July 31, 2009

Police Burnout

Many of the stresses that can contribute to police burnout occur all at once. They don't wait until the officer is ready for them.

I use this policing example to illustrate the need for senior leadership in any profession that deals with people, to pay particular attention to this specialized area of leadership development.

Avoiding burnout needs to be on your curriculum prior to deployment and an ongoing topic of learning and discussion throughout a policing professional's career.

While I may provide leadership and executive coaching for you as senior leadership, you need to adopt that same coach approach for the leaders and staff on your team.

What contributes to police burnout? A conversation with two seasoned officers who were in their 40's gave some insight. We don't pretend this is in any way exhaustive, purely anecdotal.

Like anyone else who has to work with people, law enforcement officers carry a huge burden of stress, maybe more than many other professions. The big difference is that officers often get the stressors all at once.

While much more could be said about law enforcement burnout, here's the initial view from two officers in response to the question, “What do you feel is the leading cause of  burnout amongst police officers that you are aware of?” The fact that they had immediate answers indicates high awareness of the problem. They didn't have to spend time thinking long and hard about it. It shows the reality of the specter of burnout was top of mind.

For those of you leading other organizations, ask yourself what your key people would say if asked the same question.

Long Shifts Twelve hour shifts often mean 14 hours with commute time. Sometimes things like the volume of paperwork and sitting can be tedious. Other times it is active and requiring the highest levels of alertness. But for the whole 12 hours you're 'on'. That means that adrenaline levels remain up all the time and spike during tense situations.

Decreased Respect for Authority Over time, there has been a steady erosion of respect for police officers. It is not uncommon to see young people give cops the finger and display other acts of disrespect.

Attitudes of Other Officers Younger cops coming on the force will often complain about jobs that are assigned to them. “Why do I have to do that again?” The spread of griping seems to have increased over time. “We shouldn't have to feel like baby sitters with these kids. They're cops. Do your job.”

Blurring of Your Own Identity It's often a challenge separating what you do from who you are and who you were before you became a cop. You see your job as your identity. Lines are blurred and inability to always succeed when the public is in need carry over into your view of yourself. It just means you put a lot of stress on yourself and sometimes even hold yourself accountable for things that are outside of your control.

Whether or not you agree or disagree with this anecdotal account isn't the point. The point is that when asked about police burnout, officers can immediately point to what they perceive are contributing causes. It points to the need of an ongoing environment of conversation and support where the effect of these things would be lessened.

That's where the 'coach approach' comes in, making and taking the time for individual discussion with each officer in a climate of non-judgment and with a view to personal and professional growth.

First, it would be valuable to experience coaching for yourself. In addition to your own professional development, you could use this time to develop a strategic approach to coaching the people on your team.

Spending time one-to-one with your team members is not about fixing the weak. It is about fostering and boosting existing strengths and being proactive at avoiding burnout with each and every individual.

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