Vol. 81, No. 3Cover stories

A woman looks at a smartphone that displays a heartbeat.

Being calm and alert

Program helps employees manage stress

An RCMP resilience program helps employees recover more quickly from stressful events. When used with a pulse sensor and app, participants can monitor their progress. Credit: Martine Chénier, RCMP


Just breathe — two words you might hear from someone who thinks you need to relax.

They're also the primary elements of a program that RCMP Sgt. Marie-Josée McCool developed to help boost people's natural resilience to challenges such as stress.

McCool created the Resilience Advantage Program following her training at the HeartMath Institute, which offers instruction in a system of techniques to self-regulate ones emotions and behaviour.

The approach is also meant to be used any time and anywhere to achieve what she calls "calm alertness."

"You have to breathe anyway, so you might as well learn to breathe in a way that works for you," says McCool, referring to the use of rhythmic breathing and the ability of the heart to synchronize the body and the brain to increase energy and mental clarity, and to feel better.

Improving performance

She says signals sent from the heart to the brain affect how people think, feel and perform.

"Achieving a smooth consistent heart rhythm can help you maintain your composure in challenging situations," says McCool, who notes by using the program's techniques, she says people can recover more quickly from stressful events, whether personal or operational.

"We all have an inner balance but the stresses and demands of the modern world can hijack our biological machinery and can contribute to increases in stress, anger, cynicism and other issues."

She says resilience training is particularly important at the RCMP because of the demands employees face.

"We're supposed to run towards stress, not avoid it," says McCool, who has served as a general duty police officer, a war-crimes investigator and in international policing at Europol. "This program provides you with more energy so you can perform at an optimal level."

Cpl. Josée Jolicoeur calls the training "life changing."

Jolicoeur has worked in high-stress jobs during her 18-year career. She says there were times when everything was "off" and her difficulty managing her stress affected her work and family life.

"I wasn't eating right, not sleeping, I was short with people," says Jolicoeur, who notes in the past officers didn't talk about such things. "You just lived hard and moved on, but resilience training has helped improve how I feel, and my focus."

Practice is key

Jolicoeur says she uses the tools she learned to help cope with stressful scenarios.

"The way it affects me is less now because of the program. I'm more aware of how I feel and how I should deal with stress."

There's also a technology element to the program that people enjoy, says McCool, who has provided the sessions for the past five years to RCMP employees and workers at other federal departments, depending on her availability.

The training uses an app that, when combined with an earlobe sensor, can display the user's heart rhythm, and monitor their progress.

"You can see in real time that they are able to calm their physiology," says McCool.

Supt. Rick Burchill is co-chair of the RCMP's Contract and Indigenous Policing Psychological Health & Safety Working Group.

He credits McCool for recognizing the need and taking the time to develop and deliver the program.

"There's a need for programs like this," says Burchill. "Every police officer, one way or another, will face some stress and this gives people one more tool they can use."

While recent academic studies have reported resilience training is effective for police officers, McCool is aware some people may be wary of the program when results may not be immediately evident.

"As with any new skills, it takes practice and repetition before it becomes automatic."

Jolicoeur adds: "It's like working out. You're not going to lose weight on Day 1. But if you practice and get better at it, you'll see changes.

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