Over the past several months, we’ve focused on many important leadership principles. In public safety, however, no leadership discussion is complete without addressing how to effectively handle stress in the workplace. We all know the work law enforcement officers, firefighters and correctional officers do is stressful by definition. And we face stress at home, too – sometimes more so because of our chosen profession.
We routinely take stress for granted and simply chalk it up to the cost of doing business. But what are the unintended consequences of stress? Can we do anything about it? Is it possible to live a stress-free life? Before we can answer these questions, we need to define what stress really is.
Stress is the body’s nonspecific response to any demand placed on it. It can manifest with either positive or negative results. According to this distinction, many stressful events fail to threaten us and instead provide pleasurable challenges. Stress is a dynamic condition where we are confronted with an opportunity, demand, or resource related to what we desire. There are also occasions where stress threatens something we deem valuable.
We react to tangible, physical stressors as well as those created by symbolic or imagined threats or pleasures. And to make matters worse, the effects can vary widely, depending on our culture, personal experiences, mood, and circumstances at the time of the event. Generally, we influence the nature of stress through our ability to control and anticipate events in our normal environment. Placing us in an abnormal environment with an unanticipated event will have the greatest impact and leave the most persistent aftereffects.
Sources of stress
On-the-job stress costs American companies over $300 billion a year in healthcare, absenteeism, poor performance, and turnover.  Our performance can be disrupted by relatively low levels of stress. There are physiological, psychological, and behavioral symptoms associated with unchecked stress. It can also impact our ability to positively interact with others. Dr. Andrew Bernstein notes how “Stress doesn’t come from your boss, your kids, your spouse, traffic jams, health challenges, or other circumstances. It comes from your thoughts about your circumstances.” In other words, stress is what we make of it. Moreover, studies have also found that stress is contagious. Whether at home or at work, humans can detect stress in others, which raises levels of the stress hormone cortisol. This can ultimately lead to a host of health problems.
In law enforcement, stress can give us a tactical edge. It can also destroy us if we don’t learn how to effectively control it and mitigate the impacts of negative stress. In public service, traditional sources of stress include environmental, organizational, and personal factors.
- Environmental factors is a broad category that involves stress from economic or political uncertainty, technological changes, and even lack of social support. Most of these factors are external and largely out the control of both our personnel and the organization.
- Organizational factors include task and role demands, scheduling, policy, and leadership. Among public safety personnel, we see most stress evolving from within the organization itself. Much of this can be attributed to occupational demands, which commonly involve work overload and immense responsibilities that come with the job.
- Personal factors are dependent on an individual’s internal coping mechanisms and support structure. Family or economic problems, personality, individual resilience, and work vs. non-work activity conflicts all create opportunities for stress.
The supervisor’s role
Supervisors generally have little input or control over many of the things that create stress within the organization. However, it’s possible to mitigate the impacts within your area of responsibility by staying in tune with what your people desire and need. Although it’s possible to provide relevant input and move to change the organizational climate when an opportunity arises, much of how we handle organizational stress is grounded in our frame of mind. The things that stress us the most are largely out of our control. Consider the following when you work to identify problems in the workplace that can lead to stress among your subordinates:
- Examine the workplace: Conduct a down-and-dirty analysis and find the root causes of stress among your subordinates. Chances are, having open communication and a forum for hearing them out will alleviate much of their trepidation.
- Believe in and live the organizational mission: This means more than simply knowing the agency’s mission statement. Be the role model your subordinates expect, manage your own stress effectively, and direct your efforts toward the work at hand. Believe it or not, work can be therapeutic and is a good distractor from issues largely out of our control.
- Encourage communication: Be open with your subordinates, hold regular meetings, and expect prompt notification any time problems arise. Most problems within the workplace evolve through a lack of communication.
- Push autonomy down: Allow your subordinates to grow and take on additional responsibilities that enhance their ability to do the job. This also creates an atmosphere that instills confidence. Lacking confidence creates more opportunities for stress, especially in young or less experienced employees.
- Care about your people: This should go without saying but it’s easy to get caught up in our day-to-day business, especially in a fast-paced public service profession. Take time to check in with your people. Develop relationships grounded in trust and recognize when they need some extra help.
Five steps for reducing stress
None of us are immune from the impacts of stress. This profession creates myriad challenges from both a personal and professional standpoint; therefore, it’s imperative that frontline leaders implement and encourage effective stress-reduction strategies. Simply put, we must manage our stress effectively so we can perform efficiently. Resilience is the key, and we must also remember that an individual’s ability to handle stress depends on a variety of factors, including support system, mental discipline, environment, personality, and major life events.
It’s impossible to eliminate the stressors that plague us, but we can increase our stress-coping abilities and institute a personal action plan for wellness. Consider these five steps: 
- Identify stress triggers: Take inventory of the events or circumstances that cause stress in your life. Are you constantly tensing up when talking to a particular person when on duty? Are you and your spouse frequently arguing about the same subjects, such as childcare? Do you feel like you never have enough time? Just bringing awareness to what causes stress starts the process of exercising control over it.
- Tackle your stress triggers: Take a piece of paper and write down the things that cause you the most stress. Next, place a checkmark by those items you can personally do something about. Chances are, most items on your list won’t have a checkmark – meaning there is little you can personally do to resolve the problem. In those instances, work toward reshaping how you feel or think about the problem to place it in the proper context. Learning to let go of what you can’t control takes time, but it means your list of stressors will eventually become shorter.
- Sharpen your time management skills: Both within the workplace and at home, it always seems like there’s not enough time in the day. Set realistic goals for yourself, adequately prioritize tasks, and protect the time you’ve set aside to accomplish personal and professional goals and objectives.
- Keep the proper perspective: Remember that you’re not in this alone. Talk with your family members, peers and supervisors. Sometimes another point of view will help reshape your thinking and offer alternatives that alleviate stress. Take breaks and have an outlet that prevents burnout. Take care of yourself – eat right, exercise, and don’t let stress conquer your personal wellbeing.
- Know when to get help: Sometimes stress can be overwhelming. The consequences of unchecked stress, especially in public safety, can be catastrophic. In 2019, 234 law enforcement officers killed themselves, followed by another 154 in 2020; in 2019, 114 firefighters took their own lives – and these reported numbers are generally accepted to be lower than the actual rate of suicide. [3,4] Seek assistance in times of need and ensure you monitor subordinates and colleagues so you can help when necessary. Take advantage of employee assistance programs (EAPs) or other agency-provided wellness resources and encourage others to do the same.
Stress is inevitable, but how we react to it doesn’t have to be. Stress management is critical to a long, successful career in public safety. As leaders, we owe it to ourselves and those we supervise to do everything we can to mitigate stressors for ourselves and others.
1. University of Massachusetts (UMASS), Lowell. Financial Costs of Job Stress.
2. Mayo Clinic. Coping with stress: Workplace tips.
3. Blue H.E.L.P. Officer Suicide Statistics.
4. Powers K. Firefighters are heroes, but who’s watching out for them when it comes to suicide? The Daily Times, September 23, 2019.