Vol. 77, No. 3Panel discussion

How can police agencies help their members deal with work-related stress?

Police are required to be strong as a means of survival on the street — but real strength lies in being informed, trained and smart about mental health, writes RCMP Supt. Guy Rook. Credit: RCMP

The Panellists

  • Supt. Guy Rook, North East District Commander and Ontario mental health champion, RCMP
  • Dr. Patrick Baillie, Psychological Services Division, Calgary Police Service
  • Dr. David Dingley, registered psychologist, Maple Ridge, B.C.
  • Assistant Chief of Police Sarah Creighton, Training, Employee Development and Wellness, San Diego Police Department

Supt. Guy Rook

"Let's talk about mental health" became the unofficial motto and the first step in the Ontario RCMP's mental health strategy. Simply talking about mental health at work seemed to be a straightforward and obvious pursuit — so obvious that one has to wonder why it seemed a novel idea.

In Ontario, the RCMP is facing an unusually high number of national security investigations as well as fiscal pressures. These conditions resulted in uncertainty, unpredictability and required secondments of many personnel away from their usual work sites and homes.

This situation led us to believe that we needed to start talking about mental health quickly as a preventative measure for managing the higher level of stress and anxiety many of us were facing.

We set about to deliver face-to-face positive mental health guidance sessions aimed at informing others about the services, information and tools available related to mental health. We introduced stress management techniques to aid in building resilience and we talked about stigma and shared personal stories to normalize the many challenges we all face personally and professionally.

We delivered 40 sessions to more than 1,480 participants over six months. The feedback we received was generally positive and consistent. But most importantly, it was very enlightening and instructive. We learned that:

  1. Toxic work environments and "bully" supervisors can present greater challenges and negative impacts to maintaining positive mental health than what our work often entails.
  2. People need and want to be much more open and comfortable talking about mental health, but that stigma and lack of knowledge or experience are preventing this.
  3. There is great reluctance to seek help from others or the organization. There are many reasons and combinations of reasons for this, but many relate to perceived potential adverse consequences.
  4. We have many effective services and supports to maintain or gain positive mental health that should be better known about and put to greater use.

Supervisors have to stand up for mental health. The most important activity that any supervisor can do to support employees is to be knowledgeable about mental health, be kind and compassionate, and stand up every time, to anyone, who displays false beliefs or negative stereotypes about mental health.

The public counts on the police officer to make things safe, to be strong in the face of those who use violence and intimidation and to take charge during circumstances which to others seem like sheer terror and chaos.

We are required to be strong and we learn this as a means of survival on the street, which continues into the office. Members of police services — including our supporting personnel — have to measure up to the highest standards and expectations, while managing competing demands in the workplace.

Real strength, however, is not found in denial or a mask of invincibility. Real strength lies in being informed, trained and smart about mental health and it comes from and is shared through kindness, care and respect for one another. For anyone who wishes to be at their very best in operational supervision, be kind and knowledgeable. Talk about mental health and stand up to stigma.

Dr. Patrick Baillie

Today, there is much more recognition and acceptance of the stress associated with policing. Police services across Canada have identified a need to monitor and support the mental health of their members.

What truly gives a psychological services program the chance to be effective is a change in attitudes and an organizational culture based on positive relationships. When management actively supports individuals accessing psychological services, when adequate funding is set aside for the programs, and when key leaders within the organization talk openly about how their careers, their marriages, their families, and, sometimes, their lives were saved by their willingness to seek help, that is when a psychological services program will flourish.

The Psychological Services Division (PSD) with the Calgary Police Service (CPS) is fortunate to be supported by many key stakeholders, including the Calgary Police Association, the Human Resources Operational Section (and Occupational Health), senior members of CPS and its core executive group — along with a diverse cross-section of clients willing to share their stories and encourage others to access services.

We are fiercely protective of the confidentiality necessary for individuals to feel safe telling their stories and we are not aligned with anyone in a way that might compromise that key ethical principle.

CPS members and their families have access to a range of services and service providers that are familiar with policing and the police environment, which we believe contributes to the credibility of services.

PSD tries to be able to address the variety of needs of those seeking services, which range from:

  • individual counselling to couples and family counselling
  • prompt psychiatric consultation to an in-house naturopathic physician
  • psychological screening to annual mental health checks for members working in vulnerable areas, such as Internet child abuse and long-term undercover operations
  • treatment providers in the downtown core to those in the suburbs

PSD reports directly to the chief of police and has had, since its inception more than 25 years ago, strong support from successive chiefs, including most recently Rick Hanson and Paul Cook. While there is no small cost associated with the services, demonstrable savings for CPS come from reduced absenteeism and other health care expenses.

Perhaps more than any other factor, what has given PSD the opportunity to succeed is an environment in which talking about mental health problems no longer carries the stigma it once did. Programs directly challenging stigmas — such as Bell Let's Talk or initiatives from the Mental Health Commission of Canada — have helped to change public attitudes about mental health.

The identification and willingness to address occupational stress injuries — such as post-traumatic stress disorders — among police services has contributed to a move away from an attitude that such challenges are simply part of the job. Innovative programs such as the Road to Mental Readiness (R2MR), which has been adopted by CPS, have provided tools for individuals to begin conversations about mental health in the workplace.

Twenty years ago, the majority of PSD services were provided to the spouses and children of employees, with members reluctant to attend either out of fear of jeopardizing their advancement or simply out of denial of evident problems.

Now, almost one-quarter of sworn members come through the doors of PSD each year, suggesting that the stigma of accessing help has been greatly reduced and those members are connected with the services they need to stay healthy.

Dr. David Dingley

As a counselling psychologist in private practice, I probably work with 20 law enforcement members a week. A number of my clients have spoken directly about what their employers could have done differently to help them manage work-related stress.

"If you expect someone to fight and die for you, then you'd better take an interest in them personally." A senior officer said this to me after attending a public inquest where the actions and decisions of some employees were under question.

These employees were noticeably upset and overwhelmed when relaying their experience. My client sought out each of them and simply relayed his concern and support.

In each case, he was told that no one from the employer's side had done the same in the two years since the incident occurred, and that no one was at the inquest, simply to offer any assistance emotionally should they need it.

Over and over again, I hear sentiments that police agencies need to do some very basic, simple actions that reflect compassion and genuine concern for their employees' psychological health.

I work with individuals who have exhausted themselves, impacted their physical health, their relationships with their families and their mental health.

Recently, a conscientious member has developed severe, chronic post-traumatic stress with the typical psychological symptoms but also severe physical symptoms.

For a number of years prior to meeting him, this member worked in a highly specialized unit where the workload was overwhelming and matched by the sense of responsibility and dedication held by members.

This unit had no debriefings over this period, no opportunity to directly assess the impact of the stress and institute some coping or management strategies even though the impact of the work was quite apparent.

I recently met with another dedicated member, after he realized he was not handling things in his personal life well. He stated that he had never ever thought he would end up in an office like mine, as he had always viewed anyone who did so as being weak.

He realized he was withdrawing from his spouse and family and not enjoying life. He stated he did not want to end up taking his life and that thought prompted him to make the call. He explained that he had tried to manage these stressors by not thinking about them. When I inquired about other strategies he used he indicated that he didn't know of any other ways of coping.

I don't think I have ever had any police officers describe to me any training they had had on how to manage the impact of what they are exposed to. I appreciate that police agencies are not in the business of mental health, but, I truly believe that some serious consequences could be prevented by instruction in simple, effective stress management strategies.

I think that police agencies could have a significant impact on how their employees manage work-related stress through teaching stress management skills in basic training, by recognizing when employees are pushing beyond their limits, by extending simple acts of compassion towards their employees, and through challenging the culture and climate within the organization that discourages seeking help.

Assistant Chief of Police Sarah Creighton

Stress, whether induced by a singular traumatic episode, the cumulative building of many events, or even if it's administratively created, places significant demands on our personnel.

More than ever, we bring work stress home and home stress to work, as the demands for our time increase and technology keeps us plugged in to both worlds simultaneously.

Progressive police leaders recognize that stress and its impact are inherent in our work, especially at a time when our resources are stretched so thin. Effective leadership in today's law enforcement agency requires the proactive identification and frequent advertising of resources intended for stress management, whether or not the stress is work-related.

A holistic approach to stress management can create a generation of police officers that feel cared for by their organization and know no differently than to tend to their stress accordingly.

Although the stigma of asking for help still exists for some in our occupation, by introducing the idea that stress can and should be proactively managed, and through the provision of confidentially available resources, a different culture can be created in law enforcement.

From the beginning of their careers, recruits need to be educated about the impact of stress and about the confidential resources available while they are training in the academy and through the duration of their career.

Their families should also be informed, offered resources and provided direct access without the necessity of going through their loved ones in law enforcement. How families adapt to the new lifestyle of their loved ones has a direct correlation to the officer's success.

Posters, flyers, websites and any media providing information about and access to resources should be prominent in every work station. Police agencies should also offer frequent reminders about resources through wellness classes, rollcalls and any other forum that provides such an opportunity.

Critical incident stress debriefings need to occur automatically when a significant incident occurs — not just by request from the officer. The briefings provide tacit acknowledgement by the organization of the impact of stress and validate a commitment to supporting those involved.

Variety is important when offering resources. Not every officer will want or need to speak to a psychologist or chaplain. A peer support officer might best serve their needs.

Whether through informal peer support or professional services of a psychologist, medical doctor, chaplain, substance abuse counselor or financial advisor, all resources should be made available to officers and their families at no cost and with the highest level of confidentiality the law provides.

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