The Stress of Policing

Good relationships at work can ease anxiety

Police arresting a protestor

It’s no secret that police officers work in high-stress environments.

Not only do they arrive at crime scenes, confront violent offenders, and approach victims (or, in worst cases, their survivors)—they may also come under suspicion and experience intense public scrutiny. It’s challenging to face these pressures while focusing on serving and protecting.

A new UTSC study sheds light on the implications of this high-stress environment. UTSC Management Professors Julie McCarthy and John Trougakos, along with Bonnie Cheng from The Hong Kong Polytechnic University, explored the effects of this high level of stress on RCMP officers. They found that it’s a serious concern for employee health and well-being—and also for the organization’s bottom line.

“Police officers, like all of us, have a finite amount of resources they can draw on to cope with the demands of their job,” explains McCarthy, an expert on work-life integration and stress management. “If these resources are depleted, then high levels of workplace anxiety will lead to emotional exhaustion, and this will ultimately affect job performance.”

The study, which surveyed 267 RCMP officers from across Canada, also found that good relationships with peers and supervisors can help reduce the harmful effects that work- place anxiety can have on officers and their performance.

If supervisors and co-workers are empathetic and provide emotional support by listening to an officer, this goes a long way in fostering a positive work environment, says McCarthy. These strong interpersonal relation- ships are built on high levels of understanding and trust, which allow individual needs to be met.

“Our findings highlight the importance of programs that allow employees to recover, build resil- ience and develop strong social support networks in the workplace.”

Statistics about anxiety in the modern workplace are alarming, with one survey showing 41 per cent of employees from a range of industries reporting high levels of anxiety. The hope, McCarthy says, is to highlight the importance of having strong social support networks, not only in high-stress occupations but in any line of work.

“Organizations like the RCMP have taken great strides in develop- ing techniques to buffer the effects of anxiety among their officers,” she says. “Our hope is that this research will trigger conversations among other organizations about the debilitating effects of a stressed-out workplace and the importance of
developing strategies to help workers cope with workplace anxiety.”