Job Duty Stress and its Effects on Negative Coping Skills in Law Enforcement


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Law enforcement is one of the most stressful occupations. In many cases, police officers are unable to cope with this stress, leading to undesirable outcomes such chronic stress, quitting the profession, and burnout. It is unfortunate that the coping process among law enforcement officers has not received much attention in recent research literature (Kaur, Chodagiri & Reddi, 2013). Job duty stress leads to ill health among the affected law enforcement officers. It also leads to negative outcomes in terms of the welfare of the affected individuals in the form of divorce, consumption of alcohol, and suicide (Agolla, 2009). Some of the most common sources of stress include workplace discrimination, exposure to a wide variety of critical incidents, and job dissatisfaction due to perceived work stress. Many law enforcement officers often resort to the use of negative coping skills such as gambling, intimate partner abuse, smoking, living in seclusion, and hanging out in entertainment joints such as bars, brothels, and nightclubs.


            One of the best ways of assessing the stress crisis in law enforcement is to evaluate statistics on various stress-related outcomes such as divorce rates, suicide, injury, and alcohol consumption. A commonly held belief is that divorce rate for law enforcement officers tends to be higher than that of the rest of the population. However, this belief is not anchored in empirical research. In fact, one study involving the analysis of data from the U.S. Census of 2000 has found that the rate of divorce rate among law enforcement officers is lower compare compared to that of the rest of the population (McCoy & Aamod, 2010). The findings suggest that claims that divorce rates for law enforcement officers are unusually higher than that of the general population are unfounded. The belief that divorce rates for law enforcement personnel are higher is based on the assumption that the level of stress in this occupation tends to be very high. Nevertheless, research evidence also shows that exhaustion and job stress among police officers jeopardizes marital interaction, thereby increasing the risk of divorce (Roberts & Levenson, 2001).

            Regarding suicide rates, empirical research findings in America show that suicide rates among police officers are higher than that of age-matched populations. An empirical study in Germany also showed that suicide rates for police officers were higher compared to those of a comparable age group (Schmidtke, Fricke & Lester, 1999). In this study, there were 25 suicides per 100,000 deaths among police officers and 20 suicides per 100,000 deaths among individuals belonging to a comparable age group (Schmidtke, Fricke & Lester, 1999). Another study carried out in Canada showed that the average annual suicide rate for police officers was 14.1 per 100,000, which was about 50 percent lower than that of the comparable general Canadian population (Loo, 1986).

Evidently, research findings on suicidal behavior among law enforcement officers are somewhat contradictory. Another major problem is inconsistency of findings (Hem, Berg & Ekeberg, 2001). A study undertaken in Wyoming and New York found suicide rates among police officers to be exceptionally high while another one carried out in London and Denver found stress levels in this occupation to be exceptionally low (Dash & Reiser, 1978). These contradictions and inconsistencies in findings may be attributed to methodological issues. For example, studies examining long time frames tend to show lower suicide rates than those that focus on short time frames (Loo, 2003). Regional differences also play a role in the variation in suicide rates that has been reported in literature. Moreover, different findings tend to be generated depending on whether a researcher has focused on municipal, state, or federal police forces. To resolve these methodological problems, researcher should consider using long time frames as well as controlling for factors such as ethnicity, sex, and suicide rates within population comparison groups (Loo, 2003).

            Another major indicator of stress among law enforcement officers is alcohol consumption. Research suggests police may consume alcohol at rates that are higher than those of the general population, and a major factor that contributes to this phenomenon is occupational stress (Smith et al., 2005). Police officers are exposed to stressors that are beyond the range of day-to-day human experiences on a regular basis. This phenomenon has led to the recognition of the need to look for ways of control and reducing stress.

            To deal with job-related stress, there is a need for interventions to be introduced at both individual and institutional levels. At the institutional level, some of the efforts that may be undertaken to reduce stress include reducing overtime, organizing shift rosters in a manner that is conducive to ongoing stress control efforts, as well as the introduction of administrative procedures that allow police to take rest breaks particularly during night shift. At the individual level, emphasis should be on efforts such as interpersonal support, counseling, promoting non-drinking stress-reduction activities, critical incident debriefing, and engagement in various activities in sport clubs.

            Unfortunately, achieving stress-reduction goals at both institutional and individual levels is a difficult undertaking. Consequently, many law enforcement officers end up embracing negative coping skills such as gambling, alcoholism, living in seclusion, intimate partner violence, and aggression. Negative coping tend to have adverse effects on enforcement officers’ somatic health status because they influence the patterning, frequency, and intensity of various neurochemical responses (Ranta, 2009). It also affects their health negatively due to the risk posed by injurious substances as well as engagement in high-risk, life-threatening activities. In such situations, it is necessary for the necessary interventions to be put in place with a view to encourage the affected police personnel to refrain from such denial-like, superficial ways of handling work-related stress.


Alcoholism creates a particularly problematic situation for law enforcement officers because it leads to bad workplace decisions, accidents, lost productivity, and job absenteeism. These unintended outcomes end up aggravating the already deteriorating problem of job stress, leading to untold psychological trauma. With time, these challenges lead to a situation in which the law enforcement officers begin to hate their job and to develop a negative attitude towards the communities that they serve. Such a multiplicity of work-related problems and the resulting negative coping strategies can easily lead to cynicism, burnout, divorce, alcohol and drug abuse, and suicide.

            The whole idea of adopting negative strategies is to use self-destructive methods in the hope that they will reduce stress (He, Zhao & Archbold, 2002). Consequently, a police officer may choose to engage in excessive gambling or to avoid family members and friends. They may also choose to mete out violence against their intimate partners, family members, friends, and colleagues. It is often difficult to study negative coping strategies because police officers tend to avoid sensitive questions or provide vague answers in response to those questions (Kenwright, 2008). Few officers would accept to admit that they routinely engage in negative behaviors such as drug use and alcoholism as a way of coping with work-related stress.


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