For public service workers who work in dangerous environments on a regular basis, it is not a matter of if they will be exposed to a traumatic event, but of when and how many times they will be exposed to these events throughout their careers.
Although few workers who experience traumatic events emerge with serious psychological consequences such as Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, continually experiencing stressful circumstances can take a toll on the health of the individual. Psychological and psychical wellness for these workers, because of what they do and experience on the job, therefore, can be of major concern.
Police officers, for example, experience alarmingly high rates of divorce, alcoholism and suicide. Police officers are six times more likely to commit suicide than a member of the general public. On top of that, the life expectancy of a police officer is ten years less than of Americans in other occupations. A National Center for Health Statistics study in 2000 found that although males live an average of 76.9 years and females an average of 79.5 years, police officers lived an average of 66 years, with an increased risk of stress-induced illness including heart disease and cancer. Firefighters also see an increase in suicide, domestic problems, and illness. Individuals in these services have to cope with the emotions, adrenaline and negativity experienced in their line of work which can put their health at risk.
“In law enforcement,” Sgt. Hilaire explains, “there are some things that we have no control over. We can’t control when emergency calls come in. We can’t control what we face when we arrive at a call. Many times, we have no control over our schedule. Wellness is about taking charge of those things we do have control over.”
Wellness includes maintaining physical, emotional and psychological health. Some describe wellness as balance. Although “balance” can seem a far away ideal for men and women in these stressful occupations, a few tips for public service workers to unload stress, maintain health and build resiliency against the affects of stress include:
1. Maintaining physical fitness. Physical activity is not only great for the body, but it has been proven to strengthen and enhance the function of the brain and therefore improve one’s capacity to withstand traumatic events and stress.
2. Getting enough sleep. Studies conducted on soldiers going into battle found that those whose sleeping patterns ensured they were getting enough sleep nightly were better able to withstand battle trauma. This study is applicable to the work of police officers, firefighters and paramedics as well, whose work is paramilitary in nature.
3. Seeking high-quality and confidential counseling when needed.
4. Looking out for other coworkers. Peer support and open communication with others who are dealing with the same things can strengthen vigor and relieve the effects of smaller stressors, making the individual better able to combat the psychological consequences of larger traumatic events.
Other important factors of wellness include the need for private space and privacy, and a balance between career and family life. Hilaire, for example, views engagement with one’s family as an essential part of high career achievement.
Furthermore, in a study conducted in 2009 on the impacts of a college-educated police force, college-educated officers reported that they were more equipped to deal with criticism, change, workload and stress. They also reported having a higher quality of performance on the job and being able to make better discretionary decisions.
Life can be stressful no matter what profession one has. However, law enforcement personnel and other public service employees encounter unique and particularly stressful situations on a regular basis. It is especially important, therefore, for these individuals to take into consideration their particular work environment and make an effort to maintain their internal and external health, for their professional and personal well-being.