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The police supervisor and stress.

The puzzled young police commander had long envied his superiors seemingly stress-free positions, but since his promotion, he has been experiencing chronic symptoms that rarely affected him in all of his years on patrol. His stomach pains feel like an ulcer, he frequently cannot sleep, and all too often, he turns to alcohol for relief. Last week, chest pains sent him to the emergency room, where the doctor diagnosed his problem - stress.

Many police managers experience health problems, both physiological and emotional, and have difficulty understanding the cause. As patrol officers, they might have believed that a promotion would alleviate the stress they faced every day. Soon after taking command, however, many find that they must contend with a variety of new stressors, in addition to the ones experienced by the patrol officers they lead.

Police commanders must cope with stressors similar to those faced by their private-industry counterparts, such as office politics, deadlines, budget constraints, performance appraisals, and grievances, to name a few. But police commanders, unlike private industry executives, also must respond to death scenes, family disturbances, or accidents in which people have been seriously injured or killed. The combination of leadership stressors and the unique stressors faced by the police can be a recipe for a health catastrophe.

Stress affects the performance of individual supervisors and commanders and, consequently, the performance of the police department as a whole. Municipal authorities and police executives first should learn about the causes and consequences of stress and then take steps to help management personnel reduce its influence and effects.


Limited amounts of stress can have positive results. Spectators pay money to experience the exhilaration of a boxing match, a hockey game, or an auto race. The tension of competition drives participants to excel in these events and often enhances their performance.

Yet, other stressors inhibit performance and can cause health problems. According to some doctors, as much as 70 to 90 percent of all illnesses have stress as the root cause.(1)

Stress occurs in three stages within the human body: Alarm reaction, resistance, and exhaustion.(2) The alarm reaction produces physiological changes, known collectively as "fight-or-flight" syndrome, in response to an emergency. Heart rate, blood pressure, and muscle tone increase. The secretion of adrenaline heightens awareness, a crucial survival factor for police officers confronted with life-or-death situations.

Prolonged exposure to a stressful situation eventually causes the resistance stage to set in. In many cases, such as hostage situations or drawn-out domestic disturbance calls, even though the stress-inducing danger still might be present, an officer's body adjusts to the situation and tries to return to normal. The resistance phase is characterized by more control and a greater ability to withstand the effects of stress while maintaining performance levels.

However, when the resistance stage persists, exhaustion overcomes an individual's coping mechanisms. The responses initially experienced during the alarm reaction stage might reappear. Physiological and psychological problems, such as chronic fatigue or depression, feelings of alienation, and irritability, can develop. The body continues to respond in a fight-or-flight mode and keeps producing high levels of adrenaline. The heart becomes overworked, blood-cholesterol levels increase, and actual tissue damage can occur, producing common illnesses such as heart disease, gastric disorders, arthritis, allergies, and kidney disease.(3)

Not all stress-inducing situations involve responding to calls for service. In fact, the daily stressors associated with management of the department, such as responding to personnel shortages, dealing with budget constraints, and taking disciplinary action, can produce the same kinds of stress reactions among supervisors and managers as a domestic disturbance call might provoke among line officers. These effects of stress debilitate police managers, which in turn inhibits the effectiveness of their departments. What now becomes critical to the well-being of both is to identify the causes of stress and the means to alleviate them.


Patrol officers often seem to believe that only they experience job stress. Some of the limited research on the topic of law enforcement executive stress shows, however, that police managers indeed suffer from the adverse side effects of stress as often or even more often than other police officers.

A 1974 study identified several causes of stress among administrators and field supervisors in the Cincinnati, Ohio, Police Department. Eighteen of 30 supervisors fingered excessive bureaucratic red tape as a major stressor. Others pointed to their lack of input into administration of the department, poor equipment or the scarcity of it, personnel shortages, and lack of consideration by the courts in scheduling patrol officers for court appearances.(4)

Perhaps the study's most interesting result was the identification of two stressors unique to the supervisory role. The survey found that taking disciplinary action against a subordinate and making amends with the public because of a subordinate's mistake cause supervisors the most stress.(5)

Much of the stress experienced by supervisory or administrative police officers stems from their location in the department's hierarchy. People on all sides - bosses, subordinates, members of the public, and even municipal officials - make constant demands on them.

In a more recent study of supervisory law enforcement officers' stress levels, respondents concurred, citing such stress factors as a poorly defined role within the department, insufficient support from administrators, little or no input into departmental policy, and authority incommensurate with responsibilities. It also found that the normal supervisory activities of meeting out discipline, motivating employees, building morale, appraising performance, identifying personal problems in subordinates and making appropriate interventions, and communicating effectively with subordinates caused stress among the law enforcement supervisors studied.(6)

Fortunately, stress levels do not have to reach the point of causing physiological and emotional illness among supervisory personnel. City leaders, police executives, and the individual supervisors themselves can take steps to manage stress effectively.


To begin, agencies might want to be certain that city leaders understand the negative effects of stress in order to gamer their support for stress management and stress reduction initiatives. Stress can lead to physical diseases, such as cancer and heart disease, which in turn hurts the organization by preventing employees from contributing their full measure to the agency. Heart attacks and strokes kill more people, including managers, than all other diseases combined.(7) Once city leaders realize this, they often are more willing to support agency initiatives to reduce the stress of supervisors in the workplace.

Working with city managers, police executives can employ a practical four-step plan to reduce stress levels among supervisory personnel. Notably, many of the techniques that help supervisors cope with stress and avoid its debilitating effects also improve the quality of life in the entire police department, and thus reduce the inherent stress both in the office and for those officers working patrol and other areas. The four steps - assessment, planning, action, and follow-through - ensure that executives address the appropriate problems, develop and implement workable solutions, and then monitor progress and make adjustments as necessary.(8)

Step 1: Assessment

First, police executives must determine exactly what problems affect the managers and supervisors in their departments. By listening to these employees, an accurate diagnosis can be made.

Do supervisors consistently point to a particular policy or practice within the department that causes stress? Does some aspect of the department's physical space, such as poor lighting or temperature control, inadequate storage space, or insufficient prisoner holding areas, cause problems?

Administrators also should consult recent research on stress to obtain ideas about possible causes of stress and potential problem areas. For example, studies conducted at the FBI National Academy showed that as the education level of officers increased, stress levels decreased.(9) This information, coupled with input from employees, could lead administrators to recognize that managers' educational levels might be a factor impacting on their stress levels. Stressors in one department might not be the same as in other departments, so administrators must carefully assess their own situation.

Step 2: Planning

Once they have identified specific stress factors, administrators must continue to work with managers and supervisors to find ways to improve the situation. Solutions need not be expensive or complex to be effective. For example, repairing problems with the station house, equipment, or vehicles could go a long way to reducing stress levels among managers and line officers alike. City leaders might sanction a program to reimburse those who take management or career development classes at local colleges and/or department leaders might institute a policy of flexible scheduling to accommodate course schedules. Any action taken must show a good faith effort on the part of the agency and the city to address the problems faced by managers and supervisors.

Step 3: Action

Whatever solution is chosen must be implemented fully. Studying problems and talking about solutions have no effect, or worse, have a negative effect when administrators fail to implement the planned actions. If supervisors are encouraged to seek higher education, the department should make it easier for them to do so immediately. Administrators must put the key elements in place as promised or morale will suffer, and the stressors of the job will continue to inflict their debilitating effects on supervisory personnel.

Step 4: Follow-through

Just as important as implementing the planned course of action is monitoring the success of those actions. Administrators should go back to the managers and supervisors to find out whether the situation has improved, if they feel better about the situation, and if stress levels have declined. Based on this input, programs should be fine-tuned or replaced. Helping managers and supervisors deal with stress is a continuous process, not a one-shot remedy.


Supervisory police officers must realize that they too experience stress. True, they might not deal with the difficult human relations problems that street officers face daily; yet, every job brings stressors of its own. Police managers need to learn ways to deal with the stressors that affect them in addition to taking advantage of programs offered by their departments. Ultimately, individuals must take responsibility for their own personal health.

Command personnel should learn to put things into perspective. For example, in the studies cited earlier, disciplining subordinates proved to be one of the biggest stress producers. When confronted with situations that require disciplinary action, supervisors should look at the big picture. Will the world collapse if an unproductive subordinate must be reprimanded? Ten years from now, will anyone really remember the reprimand? Probably not. Of course, I do not recommend taking any of the prescribed supervisory duties lightly; however, officers do not need to agonize over them 24 hours a day.

One of the best ways to circumvent the effects of stress simply is to get out of the office and leave work at work. Managers and supervisors should spend more time with their families, take up golf, go fishing, or get involved in church activities or with a social group.

Law enforcement personnel tend to socialize with their co-workers. When groups of officers get together they naturally talk shop, which, far from being relaxing, merely brings home the stress from work. Instead, it is important to make an effort to socialize with people not connected to law enforcement. Having outside interests and social contacts helps command personnel maintain a healthy perspective and not get caught up in the constant pressures of the station house.


Stress does not end when a patrol officer assumes an administrative or supervisory role in the department. In fact, it often multiplies. Realizing this, agency executives and city leaders can take steps to relieve stress within the department and help supervisory personnel cope with it better. Through their actions, law enforcement executives can lead by example, showing supervisors within the ranks how to deal productively with their stressful positions.

It is up to each one of us, however, to learn to handle stress well. We do not need to take the job home with us; we do not need to suffer from the ill effects of stress reactions. With education and a little effort, stress can be controlled and be used to our best advantage at work and at home. By learning to identify and deal with stressful work situations, our careers can form a rich and rewarding part of a healthy and well-balanced life.


1 John G. Stratton, Ph.D., Police Passages (Manhattan Beach, CA: Glennon, 1984), 104.

2 Ibid., 106.

3 Ibid., 106-109.

4 William M. Kroes, Joseph J. Hurrell, Jr., and Bruce Margolis, "Job Stress in Police Administrators," Journal of Police Science and Administration, vol. 2, no. 4 (1974): 381-387.

5 Ibid.

6 Nancy Norvell, Dale Belles, and Holly Hills, "Perceived Stress Levels and Physical Symptoms in Supervisory Law Enforcement Personnel," Journal of Police Science and Administration, vol. 16, no. 2 (1988): 75.

7 Karl Albrecht, Stress and the Manager - Making It Work for You (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1986), 292.

8 Ibid., 305-309.

9 Hillary M. Robinette, Burnout in Blue (New York: Praeger Publishers, 1987), 151.

Lieutenant Standfest serves as shift commander and special projects officer for the Beverly Hills, Michigan, Department of Public Safety.
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Article Details
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Title Annotation:Focus on Stress
Author:Standfest, Steven
Publication:The FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin
Date:May 1, 1996
Previous Article:Therapeutic communication.
Next Article:Multicultural Law Enforcement: Strategies for Peacekeeping in a Diverse Society.

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