How Does Police Stress and On-the-Job Challenges Affect Burnout in Cops?

Law enforcement officers (LEOs) enter the field for a variety of reasons. Some individuals are ex-military and the structure of the criminal justice system and equipment used seems like a natural shift.  Others report feeling bored with their previous profession and enter law enforcement because it is a challenging field that offers opportunities to network with other agencies such as the FBI, Secret Service, or DEA.  Still others enter the field of law enforcement with a sense of loyalty to their childhood role models who were LEOs.  Regardless of the reasons or motivations that encourage one to enter the field, positive attitudes about the profession can change over time.

Why?  Burnout.

The concept of burnout in the field of law enforcement has become highlighted in recent years.  “Burnout” is a special type of work-related stress caused by physical and emotional exhaustion. It is thought to be caused by intolerable stress that occurs on the job, causing the once motivated employee to gradually become dismayed, apathetic, cynical, and angry about their job.  Over time, the individual, who experiences day-to-day intolerable stress and exhaustion, experiences burnout. 

The employee who was creative and motivated to make a meaningful difference on the job no longer looks forward to participating in their work or profession.  Instead, they see their job and profession as the main reason they have problems in their life.  They may attribute intolerable job stress and exhaustion to why they lack sleep, feel depressed, overeat, drink alcohol, divorce, or have high blood pressure. Over time, their attitude, thoughts, frustration levels, and behaviors may change.  The employee who was once flexible and spontaneous may become rigid and reserved in an effort to survive another day of high-stress demands. 

Daily stress is accumulative.  The burned-out employee’s main goal of the day is to “get through it and get home.”  Without addressing burnout, individuals can experience fatigue, depression, and at its worst, self-harm and suicide.  According to the latest statistics recorded by Blue H.E.L.P. (, the highest percentage of suicides occur among law enforcement officers between the ages of 40 and 49 with an average of 17 years of service. At the time of this publication (March 2022), Blue H.E.L.P. has reported 22 LEO suicides so far for 2022. 

To reduce police stress and lessen burnout, here are 8 strategies that can help. 

1. Take care of your physical body.

Take an inventory of your basic needs such as annual physicals and dental care.  Know what your body needs in terms of nutrition, supplements, prescribed medications, sleep, and exercise.  Don’t rely on comfort foods and alcohol to relax yourself or caffeine to wake you up. Take the time to evaluate daily habits and make a realistic plan to integrate healthy habits into your day. Some habits will be new while others substitute negative habits already in place. Write out your plan and find people in your life who support and motivate you to remain accountable.  Commit to taking care of yourself just as you commit to taking care of others in your life. 

2. Take care of your mind and emotional wellness.

Police controversies such as the use of excessive force, racial profiling, and police suicide make it difficult to separate human emotions from these situations.  Regardless of one’s level of emotional intelligence (EQ), intense emotions emerge. Trying to suppress emotions has consequences.  Building skills to improve one’s EQ is key to emotional well-being.  People who rate high in emotional well-being demonstrate high EQ skills.  Skills such as understanding how you manage your emotions and how you act and react to specific situations improve awareness.  Those who understand what triggers their emotional reactions are thought to have high levels of self-awareness, and high levels of EQ.  A high EQ allows one to control emotions, attitudes, perspectives, and behaviors. 

3. Review your personal professional goals.

Review your professional goals.  What motivated you to enter the field of law enforcement in the first place?  List your goals and prioritize them into realistic categories, evaluating what fits and what does not fit into your current work situation.  Is there a possibility of changing or rotating tasks? Are there opportunities to upgrade your position vertically or change your position horizontally?  What training is available?  Who is the best person available to you that can talk with you about employment goals and opportunities? Instead of remaining stagnant in a job position that may be causing you significant stress, evaluate alternative possibilities at your place of work.

4. Review your organizational professional goals

In the position you currently have at your job, are there changes you can suggest about the organization that will help decrease stress and increase positive attitudes with employees as a whole?  Are there leadership opportunities that afford you an opportunity to support your colleagues and make changes that ultimately decrease stress? Be a leader. Communicate and utilize the productive ideas you have to improve your organization. 

5. Develop Strategies to Cope with Stress

How do you cope with stress?  Do your strategies work well when you are frustrated, irritable, and stressed?  Consider re-evaluating what you do.  Consider talking with someone about how to manage significant stress so that you can remain productive at work and outside of work. 

6. Surround Yourself with Positive People

Negative people fuel irritability, depression, anger, and burnout.  Negative attitudes tend to validate and highlight one’s problems and challenges without offering opportunities for resolution.  Look around and eliminate the negative people in your life who contribute to the negative energy. Set boundaries. Say no. 

7. Balance your life outside of law enforcement

Balance your life outside of law enforcement by looking at your life from the perspective of SPIES: Social, Physical, Intellectual, Emotional, and Spiritual.  Look at each category separately and ask yourself, “What do I do to enhance my life in each one of these areas?” Are there activities that you once enjoyed that you have stopped doing due to feeling stressed?  Stress can interfere with how we balance our life.  Rearrange what you do and try to re-balance your activities.  The more balanced your life is, the better you will be at managing stress.

8. Don’t just take a break, have fun

Decreasing work hours does not necessarily promote relaxation or replenish energy levels.  Take proactive steps to engage in activities you enjoy.  Plan ahead.  Connect with family and friends who share the same passions as you. If you have a hobby like painting, woodworking, or camping that you prefer to do alone, make time for it.  Have fun.

The above strategies can help stop stress from accumulating before burnout sets in.  To learn more about how you or your staff is affected by operational and organizational stress, contact Dr. Musarra for a workshop concerning law enforcement and burnout.

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