Everyday living in 2022 is stressful and balancing family, work, and free time is no easy task. In an economy with record high inflation rates, and a healthcare system burdened with the many implications of the pandemic, rest and recovery is of utmost importance now more than ever. With the US dollar having significantly less purchasing power than last year, many people are attempting to overcome this by working longer hours. More hours spent at work means less hours spent on other aspects of our lives that we value much more personally. The cognitive dissonance that a person experiences because of this work-life imbalance can lead to feelings of burnout.
Burnout is the central theme of an article published by the Harvard Business Review. Author Monique Valcour characterizes burnout by three symptoms: exhaustion, cynicism, and inefficacy. Exhaustion is described as profound physical, cognitive, and emotional fatigue and is the primary symptom of burnout. Cynicism is psychologically distancing oneself from one’s work because of feelings of disengagement and lack of pride. Inefficacy is having feelings of incompetence and lack of achievement or productivity. If you have experienced a multitude of these symptoms then there’s a good chance you’ve experienced burnout.
So what can we do to address or prevent burnout? Valcour suggests making changes to some situational factors in our lives that could yield positive results. For example, we must be better at prioritizing self care. Valcour states, “It’s essential to replenish your physical and emotional energy, along with your capacity to focus, by prioritizing good sleep habits, nutrition, exercise, social connection, and practices that promote equanimity and well-being, like meditating, journaling, and enjoying nature.” In my opinion, this is the most effective, yet also most overlooked method for criminal justice professionals to take care of their physical and mental energy.
One of the main expectations of criminal justice professionals is to put others first before themselves. This mindset is vital in the line of duty, however it can be problematic when it trickles into our day to day lives. Law enforcement officers don’t have the option of taking it easy because they are sick or they are having a rough week. It’s highly stressful to work in situations where every move you make is scrutinized and one mistake could cost you your job or even worse, someone’s life. Research indicates that law enforcement is a particularly stressful occupation due to a number of sources from within the organizational structure itself, such as role ambiguity, role conflict, lack of supervisor support, lack of group cohesiveness, and lack of promotional opportunities (Anderson et al., 2002; Gaines and Jermier, 1983; Toch, 2002). So not only do officers have to deal with on-the-job stressors like exposure to violence and suffering, but they also have to deal with organizational stressors as well. That’s why it is imperative to leave as much of the stress at work as possible and practice good self care while off the clock.
It’s necessary to delineate the differences between good self care and bad self care. Dietrich and Smith (1984) shed light on the nonmedical use of drugs and alcohol among police officers, “alcohol is not only used but very much accepted as a way of coping with the tensions and stresses of the day” (p. 304). Reducing the norm of officers turning to these maladaptive coping mechanisms is an important step in the right direction towards practicing better self care. Having worked as a first responder for several years now, I’ve experienced how stress has trickled into my daily life and how I manage my own self care through effective coping strategies. One way I do this is by leaving work at work. Some examples of how I manage to leave work at work are by muting my email while off-duty, not overanalyzing the decisions I made and what I could’ve done better, and using my time off whenever I physically or mentally need a break. I also value my health very seriously as this is another way I manage my own self care. I try my best to eat well, get adequate sleep, and exercise daily. Even when I don’t feel like lifting weights or running, I make sure I get out for at least a 30 minute walk. During this time I will usually throw on a podcast on a topic I am interested in learning about so I am essentially learning while exercising.
In summary, work burnout is a very serious and common problem for a lot of people, especially criminal justice professionals. In order to prevent burnout from occurring we must prioritize effective self care through healthy practices rather than maladaptive ones. Even though I’ve listed what I’ve found to be successful for myself, it’s important to note that every individual is different so they must find what works best for them. After all, we all have different needs and there’s no one particular strategy that universally works for everyone.
Anderson, G.S., Litzenberger, R. and Plecas, D. (2002). “Physical evidence of police officer stress”, Policing: An International Journal of Police Strategies & Management, Vol. 25 No. 2, pp. 399-420.
Dietrich, J., & Smith, J. (1984). The nonmedical use of drugs including alcohol among police personnel: A critical literature review. Journal of Police Science and Administration, 14, pp. 306.
Gaines, J. and Jermier, J.M. (1983). “Emotional exhaustion in a high stress organization”, Academy of Management Journal, Vol. 26 No. 4, pp. 567-86.
Toch, H. (2002). Stress in Policing, American Psychological Association, Washington, DC.
Valcour, M. (2016, November). 4 Steps to Beating Burnout. Harvard Business Review. https://hbr.org/2016/11/beating-burnout