The New Normal

3 keys to doing law enforcement wellness & resiliency right

By Jeff Shannon  |   Jul 2, 2018

For at least a half-century now, Americans have had a seemingly insatiable appetite for movies and television shows depicting the stereotypically angry, jaded, isolated, alcoholic, divorced cop. And yet, as riveting as these characters can be, no one in their right mind would choose to trade places with them in real life. When law enforcement officers are at social events or talking to loved ones the question often comes up, “So, how realistic is that show?”

With regard to the aforementioned angry, jaded cop, unfortunately, our answer must be, “Very.”

Where We Stand

The psychological and physical health of LEOs has been studied seriously now for at least twenty years, and the news isn’t good. While we generally start off our careers healthier than the general population, decades of police work takes a brutal toll on body, mind, and spirit. Researchers like John Violanti from the University of Buffalo New York have fastidiously documented a hodgepodge of psychological disorders and medical problems associated with this career.

If you ask the average American where most of his or her stress in life comes from, the answer will most likely be “work.” So, there’s nothing new there. But the stress of a law enforcement career is unique, both in its quality and quantity. In my wellness and resiliency classes, I stand in front of a poster board, marker in hand, and ask officers to name the sources of their stress. Even in the most lethargic of groups, this is the part of our day I just can’t keep up with them. The paperwork, the lax criminal justice system, the media scrutiny, the broken equipment, and (of course), the damn “admin.” They get quite animated and emphatic.

When it comes to change, the law enforcement profession is like a ginormous luxury liner at sea. We know when it’s time to change, and we do change, but at a snail’s pace. This stands in contrast to corporate America. For-profit companies have figured out that miserable, unhappy, sick employees are bad for the bottom line. These companies are like speedboats. They have already adopted a raft of company-sponsored initiatives all aimed at bringing the best wellness practices to their workforce.

But we have good news to report! With each passing day law enforcement executives, as well as police unions, are becoming increasingly hip to the idea that this wellness stuff is important. Really important. In fact, we could even call it a wave. Mindfulness, yoga for first responders, industry-specific nutrition, and exercise classes are popping up everywhere. Wellness committees are becoming commonplace in police departments large and small.

Why? Because we’re tired of hearing about another brother or sister in blue that his taken their life. We’re tired of our young colleagues getting heart disease and cancer. We’re tired of seeing our workmates fall into the bottle. No one got into this profession to get rich. In fact, a disturbingly high number of cops across the country have to moonlight to make ends meet. We got into this career to make a difference; to get our adrenaline rush wearing the white hat. More than ever, we are realizing that we deserve to live healthy, fully expressed lives. We deserve that.

At this point, there are countless police agencies across the country creating and recreating the wheel of “officer wellness.” Twenty years from now, there will be standard templates to choose from, like the frameworks we use now for the use of force or crowd management. But for now, most people are doing their own thing.

In an effort to help steer us generally in the right direction, here are three elements any officer wellness program should incorporate. We’re setting a high bar here, but with the requisite determination and passion, it can be achieved. While there is much more to be said about the essential elements of a wellness program, this is a good starting point.

Get buy-in. If your department is looking at officer wellness, it’s important to get buy-in from both the highest level of the administration and the union. Regarding the admin, if you’re at a large department, having a champion at the captain level isn’t going to cut it. You need your chief or sheriff to be totally on board. The union support is imperative, especially for agencies with low morale who don’t trust the admin., or any program rolled out by them. This is the bottom line starting point for your efforts. 

Get the definition of “wellness” right. Wellness is more than the latest short-duration, high-intensity workout. It must include the concomitant realms of emotional wellness, nutrition, social support, spirituality, mindfulness, and financial health. It should address the stigma associated with help-seeking behavior.

Pull stuff from the evidence. In law enforcement, we lean very heavily on science for everything from our equipment to our tactics. That’s a good thing. It’s important to remember that there exists a science of wellness. Before suggesting your cops do this or that wellness practice, you should feel confident there is an evidence base for it. Don’t leave it up to your vender to tell you, have someone you trust to look at the evidence. This person(s) should know how to evaluate research because not all research is created equally.

Conclusion

Notwithstanding the sour mood that has hovered over law enforcement for the last few years, when it comes to building more resilient, happier cops that get all that pension they deserve decades into their retirement, this is an exciting time. If your department doesn’t have any kind of wellness program, know this: Your workmates are waiting for YOU to start one!

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Jeff Shannon
Jeff Shannon worked in law enforcement for 14 years. He is a nationally recognized expert in the area of police stress. He is a licensed mental health professional with a private practice specializing in treating first responders. In California, he is a certified Master Instructor through the California Commission on Police Standards and Training (POST). Jeff consults and provides training to law enforcement agencies through his company, BlueResilience (www.blue-resilience.com).
Jeff Shannon

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