Vol. 78, No. 1External submissions

Group of people sitting around coffee table.

Wellness in the workplace

San Diego police take proactive approach to mental health

The San Diego Police Department Wellness Unit's two officers and two sergeants work out of the Wellness Center, an office with a living room setting. Credit: San Diego Police Department


Following its second rash of highly publicized criminal misconduct cases involving officers in 2011, the San Diego Police Department (SDPD) began critically looking at causes, contributing factors and anything that could explain why.

After all, these officers had been hired only after a careful background investigation and comprehensive psychological screening. They'd entered law enforcement seemingly possessing strong moral character and the best of intentions.

Looking comprehensively at all of the investigations, as well as the individuals and their histories, it became clear that significant personal or professional interferences preceded the criminal acts and should have been noticed by co-workers and direct supervisors.

Some officers were going through a divorce, battling substance abuse, having interpersonal issues in their workplace, and most were having financial issues as a result of pay cuts. For years, the department informally offered progressive employee resources. Police chaplains, police psychologists, peer support, and a form of periodic stress management training were offered. But the passive nature in which these resources were provided was no longer serving the department.

Like most police agencies, several variables significantly changed the climate in the department, including pay cuts, pension reform, reduction of available staff and an unprecedented attrition rate. The necessity to do more with less and a sense of public devaluation took a serious toll on officers. The coping skills of some officers were being challenged and leadership was ill-equipped to recognize or address the issues.

The SDPD decided to look at ways to make the changes needed that were within the department's control. With very little direction and few models to follow, the Wellness Unit was born.

Tragic start

On the first day, without the benefit of furniture, computers, phones or an articulated mission, the two-member unit was awakened by the call that a detective and her daughter had been fatally stabbed by the family's mentally ill son.

The unit's first task was to assemble help resources department-wide to shocked co-workers and traumatized department members tasked with investigating the murder.

Unfortunately, the incident was the first in a series of five officer deaths within the next few weeks. These were followed by the unprovoked attack on a uniformed patrol officer, who was fatally shot in the head while waiting at a stoplight. Two additional officer deaths were the result of motor vehicle accidents. The necessity for the Wellness Unit couldn't have been more critical.

Among the many services readily identified through the series of tragedies, the most pressing was the necessity for the unit to immediately rally debriefing and intervention resources for all employees impacted by significant critical incidents. These include officer deaths or other spontaneous events where employees would benefit from a variety of help resources.

Rather than waiting for a request by management, the unit began deployment of these resources immediately. Because of the frequency of call-outs in such a short period of time, the chaplains, psychologists and peer supporters became very adept at recognizing which resource best suited the situation.

They also learned to defer to one another based on the impacted employees' request, recognizing the most helpful resource varies depending on each officer's wishes and beliefs.

Following the shooting of the officer at the stoplight, a protracted search for the suspect spanned several blocks. Instead of waiting for the officers to finish their search duties and return to the station, police chaplains and psychologists were escorted to officers at their posts. This non-traditional deployment remains a tool for incidents where officers may benefit from an immediate intervention but cannot leave.

Additionally, the unit learned that all resources needed to train together, with a singular mission, and have a greater understanding of what each resource had to offer.

All help resources had previously fallen under different divisions and were managed individually. These were brought under one command structure with the expectation that management, co-ordination and training be based on an overarching mission.

After the string of officer deaths ended, the unit's first step was to create and administer a survey to all sworn and civilian employees, as well as department volunteers, to assess their needs. The goal was to determine the unit's priorities.

The unit saw its role as being an instrument for reducing or removing interferences to employee wellness, both personal and professional. It recognized the lack of clear delineation between work and home due to technology and the nature of the occupation. Early analysis from the assessment indicated employees were concerned about finances, work burnout, stressed familial relationships and administrative stress.

Culture shift

Negative stigma associated with asking for help still exists with some officers and will continue if unchallenged. Tenured officers still receive in-service training on wellness and resource availability, but the SDPD recognizes that in order to change the culture, emphasis should be placed on reaching the newest generation of officers.

Taking the pulse

A two-year evaluation of the Wellness Unit by employees in 2013 found:

• 99% had heard about the Wellness Unit

• 59% had used the services of the Wellness Unit

• 72% believed the stigma of asking for help had been reduced

• 80% had an increased awareness of wellness issues related to the job

• 66% felt that wellness issues are more widely discussed

• 88% believed they could ask for and receive help

• 85% said they would use the services if needed

• 51% knew people who had used the services

• 81% said they would feel comfortable walking into the Wellness Center

New officers are immediately taught to recognize the Wellness Unit as a service, not unlike payroll or operational support, the unit that provides radios and flashlights, as one of many necessary support services intended to fully equip employees to address their needs. The resources are available to employees and their families, and can be directly accessed with no expectation that the employee go through or notify their supervisor.

The day before new officers start the academy, they are given a wellness brochure outlining available help services and how to contact the Wellness Unit team, whose members can be reached 24 hours a day. Immediately after graduation, a full day of psychological preparedness is facilitated by the chief psychologist.

This affords the wellness staff another opportunity to familiarize new officers with the resources while introducing and providing direct access to family members. Department chaplains, psychologists, the Wellness Unit team and other department members attend to meet the officers and their families. They provide insight into the necessity of proactively tending to one's wellness.

In an effort to reach tenured officers and sergeants, two hours of wellness training are offered during their mandated cycle of advanced officer training. Topics include post-traumatic stress disorder, suicide, depression, substance abuse and an overview of services available.

Wellness Center

The Wellness Unit team currently comprises two police officers and two sergeants, whose primary role is to meet with employees who are in crisis or on its path. Employees can request personal services or call about an employee they wish to be checked on.

In the interest of removing negative stigma for seeking help, the services offered by the Wellness Unit are made very visible — housed onsite at police headquarters within the Wellness Center.

The inviting space situates team members at each corner of the office with a living room setting in the centre. The door of the centre, just across from the cafeteria, is propped open and free flowing with complimentary coffee always brewing. When privacy is needed, the door is locked with a sign posted indicating that a meeting is occurring.

The team is frequently asked to check on employees for a variety of reasons, such as if they're under investigation or experiencing issues at home. More often than not, the employee receiving a call is receptive or at least appreciative, and in many cases, will accept a referral or an invitation to meet with a Wellness Unit member.

Many simply walk into the Wellness Center and ask to speak with someone because they know the service is available and recognize the value. Often, simply speaking with someone who can relate to their issue is all the employee wants.

In cases where an individual requests assistance and requires time off to tend to a personal issue or family crisis — or simply needs to be moved to a less stressful assignment — the employee can make the request through a wellness advocate.

Department leaders have been very supportive of the unit, which continues to grow in scope and size.

And although the future remains to be seen, it is clear that employee wellness and assurances that it is made a priority are a leadership responsibility. As the Wellness Unit team continues its work, the emphasis will be on developing leaders to more effectively be the primary care givers for their employees in the interest of building a happy and healthy organization.

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