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Dealing with employee stress: how managers can help--or hinder--their personnel.

Stress is a critical issue within contemporary organizations and society. For law enforcement agencies, it can arise from a variety of sources. For example, stress may stem from circumstances or incidents that occurred as a result of the unique nature of an officer's job or personal life issues. Or, problems that develop similar to those in any workplace may cause it.

Unfortunately, some management practices also create stress in the life of the individual employee. While contemporary leadership and supervisory courses foster effective management techniques, some managers, often trained in traditional policies or management practices or, perhaps, more interested in their own advancement, forget that their actions can create a stressful work environment and impact the success and well-being of a work unit or organization. How are these less than effective managers creating such stress?


Ineffectively Dealing with Assignments

Especially in law enforcement, many assignments and responsibilities must carry a sense of urgency because they are important and necessary and have a strict deadline. Yet, not every action is or needs to be portrayed as a crisis, particularly on the administrative side of an agency. Stress results when managers treat all assignments as the crisis du jour and pressure employees to labor under unnecessary deadlines and stressful conditions for normal tasks. Others fail to understand the magnitude of the tasks they assign or do not appreciate the time, detail, and effort necessary to bring a project to fruition. Unrealistic expectations and deadlines often make staff feel unnecessarily burdened and frustrated by their assignments.

Furthermore, managers who attempt to exert and maintain control over employees and their work by assigning it in a piecemeal fashion cause stressful environments. In these instances, employees continually must return to their supervisors for additional information before they can successfully complete any assignment.


A clear distinction exists between knowing what is going on within an organization and among employees and trying to perform or dictate staff members' jobs. Supervisors who micromanage place too much emphasis on structuring and controlling subordinates' workdays and dictating the only acceptable response to assigned tasks. They tend to focus too little on developing employees' knowledge, skills, and abilities that will help them work independently and achieve their own success.

Communication is, of course, a critical element in effective agency management. Some managers may find interpersonal communication difficult, and they may avoid interaction with employees, choosing to communicate only via written memoranda or e-mail. Others might limit face-to-face contact with their subordinates, preferring to stay in their own offices. In all of these cases, effective communication is less likely to occur, and employees frequently fume with frustration.

Difficulties in Evaluating Performance

Law enforcement personnel recognize that discipline and performance evaluations are necessary parts of the job. They expect, however, that managers will administer both fairly and consistently. Organizational stress arises when managers show favoritism to certain subordinates, invoke discipline for no apparent reason, or evaluate staff against ill-defined or arbitrary standards.

In most agencies, while the majority of employees appropriately respond to community or organizational expectations for their performance, some fail to meet these standards or display the professional values exhibited by their peers. In such cases, employees expect managers to deal with problem personnel. When managers ignore nonperformance or provide excuses for these subordinates without addressing the actual problem, they undermine morale and add to the stress and frustration of those who simply seek to do right and expect bosses to do the same.

Supervisors who appreciate employees' accomplishments and comprehend the volume and intensity of their workloads remain key to positive emotional health of personnel. Yet, in spite of this accepted fact of management, some still fail to acknowledge the impact of multiple assignments and the demands required of professional performance. These managers who have yet to learn to say thank you cause stress for their employees and fail to reach their own expected leadership potential.

Inappropriate Responses

Effective law enforcement now, perhaps more than ever, requires managers who adopt a reasoned, flexible approach to the changing demands placed upon them and their resources. Community concerns, internal politics, and external political realities frequently have generated inflexible, knee-jerk managerial responses to the immediate issue. Such ill-timed and poorly planned reactions lack adequate consideration about anticipated or unintended consequences and place the most significant stress upon the individuals who carry out the decisions and most directly live with the results.

Perhaps, employees feel most frustrated when managers refuse to give or share credit for a team's success or decline to accept responsibility for failure. People desire appreciation and acknowledgment of their contributions to a group's accomplishments. At the same time, they respect managers who acknowledge their own failures and recognize that many frustrations within an organizational unit should not rest solely on an individual employee.


How can managers reduce the stress they cause employees and improve their own effectiveness? In addition to understanding the impact of their actions on subordinates and continuing to learn and apply productive leadership and management skills, managers can take several other specific steps.

Communicating with Others

In many organizations, a collapse of communication causes the breakdown in relations between labor and management. Within smaller units, when managers fail to communicate with their employees or do not encourage reciprocal communication, negative results ensue. Effective leadership within an agency and management of human resources require effective and ongoing communication at all levels. To ensure such communication, everyone within the organization must view managers as fair, open, and honest. Trust between managers and subordinates is required for the most successful operations. From the beginning, employees should understand managers' expectations, particularly in regard to how they want personnel to approach their jobs and how they plan to conduct discipline and performance evaluations.

The aura of crisis some managers attach to work efforts and communicate to their employees too frequently results from their failure to adequately plan. Devoting time to planning for their organization's operations and even for their own day will reduce the stress that they cause for their subordinates.

Times of great stress are, of course, dramatic ones for law enforcement employees. One of the important roles managers play during such periods is a safety valve, an emotional outlet through which employees appropriately can vent their anger, fear, frustration, and concerns. At the same time, managers must successfully buffer subordinates from the stress produced by those higher in the chain of command, including elected and appointed officials outside the agency.

Personnel appreciate managers who communicate a direct interest in their performance and are involved in the activities of the organization. In law enforcement agencies, employees respect leaders who remember their roots, spend time on the street in spite of administrative demands, and support subordinates as they do their jobs. By its nature, contemporary law enforcement is a stressful profession, and that stress permeates the department. However, effective leadership practices can increase communication and reduce the tension attributed to the organization and its hierarchy. "Law enforcement leaders wanting to reduce the psychological stress caused by poor supervision and apathetic attitudes toward employees must be committed to making the workplace a 'worthplace'--where people care about people and where employee needs are emphasized and by developing a healthy environment that is perceived by the employees as a good place to work." (1)

In addition, knowing and focusing on employees--their strengths, weaknesses, career aspirations, and families--can lead to effective workplace communication. Armed with that knowledge, managers can appropriately assign tasks and responsibilities and ensure that employees perceive their work as meaningful and valuable.

Sending Positive Messages

The law enforcement profession is, by its nature, a challenging experience. Officers and support personnel deal with people in their worst times of crisis, pain, and raw emotions. Managers must realize the importance of their support of subordinates, especially when the crisis impacts those personnel. Such a role, akin to that of a cheerleader, becomes particularly necessary when the negative issues occur within the organization itself, rather than as a byproduct of the work, and managers have to maintain the morale of the agency. Managers must maintain an outwardly positive attitude, especially in the presence of their subordinates--for the health and mission of the organization, they cannot afford to be viewed as negative or against the administration.

Further, employees can frequently become pawns between battling managers. In the context of effectively dealing with employee stress, managers should have two primary considerations. First, within proper legal and ethical boundaries, they have an obligation to maintain loyalty to the organization and the people for whom they work. Second, they have a responsibility to keep their own counsel. Employees do not need to hear their own bosses' emotional outbursts toward the organization, its hierarchy, or their own peers.

It is, of course, important to acknowledge the seriousness of contemporary law enforcement and its critical social mission. At the same time, managers should recognize that such an intense environment still needs humor and personality. This profession requires that its personnel, for their own mental health, should search for the positive side, accepting that the seriousness of job tasks can be alleviated. Managers who take their jobs and themselves too seriously risk damaging the emotional well-being of their personnel, as well as themselves.

Part of the maturation process for organizational leaders requires them to realize they must accept responsibility for their subordinates' actions, which are not always under the manager's direct control, as well as for their own. Absent criminal or ethical violations, it may be more appropriate for managers to accept some of the responsibility when subordinates fail to reach the desired accomplishment and then use the situation as a learning experience for all.

Focusing on the Employee

Effective job performance requires a balance of professional demands, family responsibilities, and personal issues. Failure to acknowledge and accept the relationship between each frequently can result in conflict, frustration, and anger that spill over all parts of a person's life. Performing effectively on the job entails simply learning to balance employment demands with life's other elements. For managers, this also means that they not only learn to apply such balance in their own lives but also accept it as a necessity for the healthy work and personal lives of their employees.

Managers also should work to develop those who serve in their organizations, helping them do their jobs more effectively and with fewer distractions through programs in stress and time management and personal finance, for instance. Such development results in an investment in the future of the agency through its people.


By the very nature of their chosen profession, with its high demands and heavy personal toll, law enforcement officers will continue to experience stress throughout their careers. The various methods managers use to administer assignments, evaluate performance, and handle responsibility can directly impact the amount of employee stress.

However, managers can effectively mitigate some of these stressors frequently caused by organizational issues, poor leadership, and ineffective management. Managers who communicate with their personnel by acting as a safety valve, taking a direct interest in their performance, and focusing on their strengths and weaknesses can help eliminate tension. It is critical, then, that leaders and managers in law enforcement agencies recognize how they contribute to the stress of their employees and take aggressive steps to reduce their stress-causing practices.


(1) Richard M. Ayres, Preventing Law Enforcement Stress: The Organization's Role (Alexandria, VA: National Sheriffs' Association, 1990), 33-35.

RELATED ARTICLE: Reducing Employee Stress 12 Tips for Managers

1. Ensure effective two-way communication with employees.

2. Be fair and honest in communications with personnel and confirm that they understand your expectations.

3. Act as a safety valve to allow employees to vent and protect them from stress from others higher in the chain of command.

4. Be involved in employee assignments and available for guidance.

5. Project a positive attitude.

6. Lighten up.

7. Accept the responsibility of both leadership and management.

8. Learn to balance home, office, and personal stress.

9. Foster a healthy working environment.

10. Learn to build and encourage employees' self-esteem.

11. Plan effectively.

12. Display organizational loyalty and maintain your own counsel.

RELATED ARTICLE: Leadership Books

1. James M. Kouzes and Barry Z. Posner, Leadership Challenge, 3rd ed. (San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, 2002).

2. Earl E. Weick and Kathleen M. Sutcliffe, Managing the Unexpected (San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, 2001).

3. Jim Collins, Good to Great (New York, NY: Harper Business, 2001).


Dr. Sewell formerly served as assistant commissioner of the Florida Department of Law Enforcement.
COPYRIGHT 2006 Federal Bureau of Investigation
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
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Article Details
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Author:Sewell, James D.
Publication:The FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jul 1, 2006
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