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Course prepares police trainees to combat work-life stress     Send a link to a friend

[SEPT. 9, 2004]  URBANA -- "What's the number one reason for early death among police officers?" Angela Wiley asks new cadets at the University of Illinois Police Training Institute. They almost always get the answer wrong.

"Overwhelmingly, they respond that it's getting killed in the line of duty," said Wiley, a U of I assistant professor of family studies and Extension specialist in handling work-life stress. "But statistics now show that police officers are more likely to die by their own hand than to be killed by a perpetrator."

In fact, it's hard to imagine a profession more stressful than police work. "And the stress takes its toll in high rates of suicide, divorce, alcoholism, depression and stress-related illnesses, such as 'cop ulcers' and high blood pressure," Wiley said.

But Wiley doesn't believe these outcomes are inevitable, especially if police trainees can strategize, while they're in training and periodically throughout their careers, about ways to protect their marriages their families and their own emotional well-being.

So the specialist now teaches four hours of physical and emotional stress prevention to each class of cadets at the Police Training Institute. And, in January, she and institute directors will travel to Jacksonville, Fla., to talk about the program they're developing at American Society for Law Enforcement Training meetings.

"Most departments deal with officer stress primarily after a crisis, such as a shooting," Wiley said. "We don't believe any other police training organization in the country is teaching systematic stress prevention at this very early career preparation level."

Wiley said that police officers often feel they don't have anyone to confide in about the stress that they're experiencing. Spouses are often afraid to hear about it, she said.

But it's also a job that's hard to leave at the office. "Police officers tell me it's hard to forget about the child molester they arrested that day when they come home to their young children."

From focus groups with police spouses, Wiley knows it's important for officers not to routinely allow negative spillover from work. "Many spouses complain that when a police husband or wife is angry, they'll spring into police mode at home, barking orders and expecting the family to fall in line," said Wiley.

"So we really emphasize that officers need to change hats when they go home," she said. "And they have to be more aware of making this transition than people whose jobs don't require such a dramatic change in behavior."

In other stressful professions, such as air-traffic controlling, workers are under great stress the entire time they're on duty. But police officers experience burst stress: "long periods of intense boredom punctuated by short bursts of sheer terror." Officers working in dangerous neighborhoods are especially likely to experience the ill effects of hypervigilance. "They can't ever let down their guard, and when they get home, they just crash, sit in the magic chair, and their families can't reach them. It's a biological response and they can't help it," she said.


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So Wiley is teaching cadets to be intentional about recuperation at day's end. She tells them, "Let your families know you'll need down time when you get home. But then you have to come back to earth and be present in your relationships. You know you can't have six beers and do that, so you have to plan how you're going to recuperate."

Another stress for police officers is the need for 24-hour coverage on the job, she said. "Most departments rotate shifts every three months, so officers can't ever get settled on a particular shift. And, even when they're off duty, they can be called in for a crisis or a court appearance. It's very challenging for police families to plan things together."

It's also hard to cope with the public perception of police, which ranges from the doughnut-eating cop at the diner to the cops in the Rodney King video. Police officers not only have image problems, they often have self-image problems because they expect themselves to be superhuman, she said.

"Officers often believe they're not allowed to have weaknesses. The police culture really emphasizes machismo, strength and leadership," Wiley said.

"And, in this culture, female officers report very high levels of work stress. They may be expected to prove themselves by performing above the norm, or they may get all the assignments that seem to require a woman's touch, such as domestic violence cases," she said.

Wiley wants to make ongoing work-life stress management programs available to police after they've left the academy. "We'd like to see departments destigmatize police stress, addressing it regularly in workshops or newsletters. Police officers should be able to receive help confidentially or get help making a plan to deal with their work-life stress."

She said many of the cadets she teaches are very idealistic. "They see themselves as peace officers, as people who help their communities. But police work can become extremely difficult even when people start out with the best intentions," she said.

"That's why we want to change the way police departments deal with stress," Wiley said. "We want to make preventing stress the norm instead of dealing with stress after a crisis has occurred," she said.

[University of Illinois news release]

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