The Dissatisfied Officer

What needs to change, the agency or the officer?

By Capt. Shane S. McSheehy  |   Jul 3, 2019

Job satisfaction, or lack thereof, ranks among one of the most commonly discussed topics in law enforcement. If an officer is unhappy on the job, the key question is why? Certainly there are plenty of academic studies on this topic, most of which cite issues that can have an impact on an officer’s state of mind such as work/life balance, the inherent stress of the job, emotional and physical challenges, their level of ability to navigate “office politics,” and, of course, working through traumatic on-the-job experiences. While I largely agree that the degree to which these things are effectively handled can correlate to the level of job satisfaction, I can’t help but wonder,

What if officers unhappy with their jobs weren’t happy to begin with?

A Test for Happiness?

Police applicants endure an onslaught of evaluations, exams and procedures. What’s interesting is that I have never seen a pre-employment test that measures a prospective officer’s level of general happiness or life satisfaction. Maybe there should be? If an applicant has a pre-existing condition of unhappiness, wouldn’t future job satisfaction be a significant uphill challenge?

There are a multitude of external influences on the job that make us happy or unhappy but for most of us, I believe the relationships we have with our spouses, children, and family tend to have the most influence on our core level of emotional well-being. Certainly, financial wellness, health, and professional achievement levels also play a role.

If those external influences on happiness deteriorate–and we all know they can–as the result of divorce, financial woes, problem children, and so forth, the officer brings that baggage to the job. This in turn can negatively impact performance and decision-making and potentially result in serious consequences for the officer and their agency. If the officer already comes to the table with a low level of overall life satisfaction and these negative life blows hit, the dive down can be much worse.

What Can We Do?

Job dissatisfaction can’t be ignored. If it is, it will magnify over time and potentially spread. No good. So when you’re trying to improve an officer’s level of satisfaction, the big question to initially answer is, What needs to change? The agency or the attitude?

To answer that, it’s important to determine what came first. Was the officer unhappy first, and as a result experienced low job satisfaction? Or did the officer become unhappy because of low job satisfaction, thus affecting their off-duty areas of family, health, or wealth? Once you figure that out, you can better determine where to start when trying to turn things around.

Measuring officers’ job satisfaction can be difficult, complex, and sometimes even frustrating. But it’s critically important. The happier you are when you come to the job and the better you are at maintaining a solid level of happiness, the more likely you are to be satisfied with your job. You’re also less likely to suffer the negative consequences of living and working in a stressful state of dissatisfaction.

What I’ve Learned

In my experience, my own attitude was the single most important element of my success. Simply put, I refused to let other’s actions or words have a destructive influence on me. At the end of the day, YOU are responsible for creating your own path, achieving your successes, and improving on your shortcomings.

A vital component to my success was the happiness I derived from nurturing a long and supportive relationship with my wife, playing a meaningful role as father to my three children, and maintaining the relationships I have built with friends and co-workers over the past 25 years. I brought my own happiness to the job. I had fun, maintained a positive outlook, and worked diligently. I kept my ethical obligations to my co-workers, supervisors, and the organization. Sometimes the road was bumpy but learning to work through those times also contributed to my success.

Persistence is real. Putting in the work matters. If you are looking for a meaningful, rewarding career in law enforcement, you must find ways to overcome challenges and break through barriers. Create your own journey, and bring your own happiness.