Work Stress and Occupational Burnout Essay

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Stress is a mental, emotional, and physical reaction to an event (i.e., the stressor) that is disruptive, thereby resulting in psychological and/ or  physiological  distress.  Typically,  there  is increased autonomic arousal, which from an evolutionary perspective prepared the body for a flight-or-flight response. The reaction can be either positive or negative, though people tend to think more about the negative aspects of stress. When positive, stress leads to heightened performance and feelings of success and confidence, and allows the body to return to the prestress state. When negative, the physical reaction to the stress is sustained, representing a strain on the body and mind.

The consequences of negative stress can be extensive. Behaviorally, stress can play out as alcohol  and  drug  abuse,  accidents,  violence, eating disorders,  interpersonal difficulties, and even suicide. Psychologically, stress can manifest as sleep disturbances, depression, and burnout. Medically,  the  symptoms  may  include  headaches, gastrointestinal problems,  heart disease, and strokes.

Burnout  is not just about  feeling physically and mentally exhausted but also feeling cynical, detached, and worthless.  It might start slowly, with an awareness of feeling stressed, but then quickly increase in degree and intensity. Eventually the individual loses interest in his or her job, may subsequently be inattentive or apathetic at work, may use or abuse sick time, may look for shortcuts to complete assignments, and feels overwhelmed. Idealism shifts to negativity and cynicism. A sense of anger and bitterness grows, with the employee feeling unappreciated and unfairly persecuted.

Police and correctional employees often experience work stress and emotional burnout. Although one traditionally thinks of patrol officers when thinking of police, it is important to include  detectives,  forensic  investigators, and administrators. Corrections employees include all correctional employees, such as officers, professional staff, and administration. For both police and  correctional employees,  stress  originates from a variety of sources, such as routine aspects of the job, administrative policies and procedures, societal expectations, and personal stressors.

Police Work and Stress

Police work is inherently stressful, with routine stressors and critical incident stressors. Although distinctly different, both wear on the officer over time and with a cumulative effect. Routine stressors include shift work, communication with individuals who are in crisis, courtroom testimony, social isolation,  and a negative group climate. Many police feel consumed by paperwork, the pressure to get results, and limited opportunities for advancement.

Police officers commonly deal with hostile criminals,  violence, and personal  danger.  They make critical decisions in a split second and under intense pressure, yet are typically questioned by administrators, politicians, and attorneys who have the luxury of time and foresight.

Administrative stressors include policies and procedures that may be fluid and contradictory, yet may result in disciplinary and/or legal action. Another administrative stressor is the internal investigation, which  follows  critical  incidents and officer-involved shootings. It is not uncommon for police to feel a lack of support from commanders who fall prey to political  and/or public pressure.

Police also deal with unusual events of a violent or traumatic nature that strain their usual coping skills and can result in emotional and/or behavioral dysfunction. Some of these events include mass casualties, riots, shootings, the abuse and/ or death of a child, and the death of a fellow police officer. This is a recipe for post-traumatic stress disorder and can lead to significant stress response  symptoms. Post-traumatic stress  disorder is a common response to an uncommon stressor, which is an actual or perceived event that threatens the individual’s safety.

Another  source  of stress for police officers arises from  the necessary  skills taught  in the police academy and on the job, but which can cause problems in their personal lives. Police are taught to be careful and observant, but this can turn to suspicion and vigilance. On the streets these skills lead to preventative policing, arrests, and survival but they can wreak havoc in relationships. Therefore, it is the degree rather than the existence of the characteristics that matters. Vigilance can turn to hypervigilance, which often interferes with family life. Suspicion can turn to cynicism, which causes problems in personal relationships. The balance between work and home is not sufficiently addressed in the police culture and, as a result, the police officer suffers.

Police are taught and expected to be in control, which is necessary to command an unpredictable and threatening situation. However, at home this may lead to a tendency to dominate despite the fact that compromise and mutual decision making results in a happier marriage. In fact, spouses of police often cite the job as the primary source of marital  strife and family problems.  While a police officer might question and demand, a child wants to be heard and understood, so conflict and distance may grow in relations with children. In sum, the dominant strategies that are productive on the job are often counterproductive in the home. Furthermore, as police experience marital strife, family problems, and financial difficulties, their work stressors compound their vulnerabilities and increase the likelihood of anxiety related to their work environment.

Many police socialize with fellow police officers because  of the camaraderie and  comfort that flows from mutual understanding of the job, including satisfaction and frustration. A horrific crime scene is not as shocking to another police officer, and there is less risk of judgment for what needs to be done during the course of a shift. However, without balance in social relationships and activities the officer may identify solely as a police officer, thereby meeting all social and emotional needs through that role. As a result, the personal life of police becomes secondary to their job. This identity as police dominates other roles like spouse or parent and serves to socially isolate the officer. The police officer feels inextricably combined with the job, such that a threat to the job is perceived as a threat to his or her life.

Correctional Staff and Stress

Correctional staff also experience  a high level of stress, both chronic and acute in nature. Correctional employees deal with hostile criminals, violent offenders, and the risk of personal danger. An average day holds any manner of unpleasant exchanges with inmates, such as disrespect, insults, and criminal activity, as well as the possibility of an assault or critical incident. There are also considerable administrative stressors, such as numerous policies and procedures, some of which seem contradictory, as well as perceived lack of support. Shift work is standard for custodial and unit staff.

Stressors inherent to correctional work include dealing with dangerous felons on a daily basis and having to be suspicious of the inmates. Correctional staff must maintain a pervasive and heightened sense of being on guard to ensure they are not taken advantage of or manipulated. They are instructed not to trust inmates, yet need to maintain professional relationships with them. Correctional employees must protect themselves and be aware of any signs of possible assaults or riots. Correctional officers enforce the rules and ensure participation in daily activities. During evening and midnight shifts, one officer commonly supervises a housing unit with more than 100 inmates. A correctional officer must always maintain a vigilant stance, as people’s lives are at stake.

A unique difference between police and correctional work, despite both working with criminals, is that correctional employees work among the same group of inmates every day. If correctional staff experience personal stressors such as family problems and financial difficulties, they may talk about it to a colleague in front of an inmate, thereby revealing vulnerabilities. Staff are then at greater risk of being compromised by devious offenders.

In addition to the possibility of violence by inmates or staff in the correctional setting, verbal abuse, prejudice, and sexual harassment abound. Many staff members complain about the number of angry and bitter employees who count the days until retirement alongside the inmates who count the days to their release. The environment is not necessarily friendly to women, but women may feel they cannot complain lest they be perceived as weak and inadequate.

Both police and correctional officers’ stress may continue  until burnout occurs. Burnout  occurs when exhaustion of a physical and emotional nature follows prolonged frustration and stress. The experience of burnout is slow and debilitating, but affects the focus, enthusiasm, motivation, and energy level of the employee. Apathy and inertia can set in, and this tends to seep over into personal life. This is dangerous for any law enforcement  officer, since an officer’s attention must be ever at the alert to protect the employee and the community from danger.

Recruit education, additional training throughout the career, counseling,  and critical incident debriefings are coping strategies that improve resilience. Coping skills and resilience equip the police and correctional staff to deal with a highly stressful work environment. Factors that aid in resilience include having a well-balanced support system, participating in recreational and physical activities, taking vacations, a sense of spirituality, being engaged in the community, finding meaning in life, and experiencing hope and optimism.


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  2. Ellis, R. “Staff Services and Programs.” In T Fagan and R. Ax, eds. Correctional Mental Health Handbook. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 2003.
  3. Gilmartin, K. Emotional Survival for Law Enforcement: A Guide for Officers and Their Families. Tucson, AZ: E-S Press, 2002.
  4. Miller, L. Practical Police Psychology: Stress Management and Crisis Intervention in Law Enforcement. Springfield, IL: Charles C. Thomas,
  5. Stevens, D. Police Officer Stress: Source and Solutions. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Education, 2008.
  6. Sulsky, L. and C. Smith. Work Stress. Belmont, CA: Thomson Wadsworth, 2005.

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