Occupational burnout

Few professions create burnout more than that of a police officer writes Finian Fallon – but the frontline too can find their inner Zen

Burnout refers a state of physical, emotional or mental exhaustion, which can be caused by too much exposure to stress over a period of time. Burnout occurs in many people who work in different professions. For those working in policing, the stresses and strains of the work are made more challenging by the need to move between opposite states of mind in response to situations. Where physical threat and criminality are involved, this may require the officer to adopt a more aggressive and assertive stance. Where people are in need of assistance and are vulnerable or under threat, a more calm and supportive approach may be needed. Sometimes a situation where aggression is needed, can be quickly followed by a situation where a calmer more supportive position needs to adopted. On its own, this switching between apparently contradictory ways of being can be very stressful on the mind and on the body.

Another form of stress that can contribute to burnout is workplace bullying. The psychological impact of this kind of stress is often very significant. It can lead to serious depression and suicidality among those who are subject to it. Some organisations are structured in such a way that bullying and intimidation of those who don’t ‘toe the line’ borders on being a systematic approach to managing dissent and difficult staff.

A friend of mine works in the health services, working with seriously ill patients. She complains that the most stressful thing about the job is not the patients, but the lack of support and resources within the system. While patients can get appointments, it often arises that a theatre, specialist staff member, or piece of equipment is not available. This can lead to a cancellation of an important procedure and massive stress for the patient, their family and the professional trying to organise everything for the patient. It can be imagined how damaging this is for the professional over time; if this kind of scenario is to be repeated over and over again.

Simply working too much can be a cause of burnout. I often have a discussion with busy clients about the idea that, even though we know they can function at their job at a high level for a very long time, this is by definition a stressful situation and needs to be managed. Many officers know overtime kings or queens in the Force, who can often become very stressed because of the stresses of working long hours, often coupled with the pressure of financial worries.

One way of avoiding burnout it to have a trusted colleague or line manager who is open to listening to your experience. Effectively, it is good to offload our experiences by talking about them. I saw a TV show recently in which one of the characters said, “cops don’t talk, you know that,” in discussion with the worried wife of his police officer son. Trying to change the culture of silence among police men, and men in general, might go a long way to alleviating the level of burnout among police officers.

Another way of avoiding burnout is to use empathy. Empathy is the idea that we can understand the feelings of others. It is not the same as sympathy, which involves expressing pity or sorrow. Empathy involves more of an internal appreciation of how the other person feels.

I would say that empathy is something we need to have for ourselves. When we are in a difficult situation, we can show empathy for ourselves by acknowledging that we are feeling tense, angry or stressed in the moment. Even recognising these feelings while we are feeling them can help reduce their impact and expression. We are more productive when our emotions are not overwhelmed. I always talk with frontline staff about the idea of managing rather than controlling our emotions. When we try to control our emotions too much, it bends us out of shape in all kinds of stressful ways. No, it is more important to manage, acknowledge and respond to these strong emotions than deny them and try and push them down. I say to trainee therapists that we are in the thermostat business, not the switch business. By that, I mean that we are trying to help clients manage their emotions to less stressful levels, rather than switching them off or denying them. This denial approach doesn’t work because very often the denied emotions accumulate in the body and emerge later as stress, illness or burnout. If we can empathise with ourselves, or accept that it’s ok to feel as we feel, then this can reduce stress.

A 2017 piece of research by David Turgoose and others studied police officers who work with victims of sexual assault. They looked at the impact of this specialised work in a range of areas including burnout. Though their work is not definitive, it suggested that high burnout levels were found in officers who demonstrated low empathy. Part of the study involved training officers on what is called compassion fatigue. It was found, as it has been in many other professions, that training frontline staff in the concepts of burnout and compassion fatigue can be helpful. Other research has shown that empathy training can make organisations more effective and less stressed. Empathy is an emerging concept in organisational psychology and we can expect to hear much more about it in years to come.

Here’s a little empathy experiment to try over the next week. The Buddhists have a saying that “everybody suffers.” This is perhaps a very strong way of expressing the possibility of empathy. For the next week, if it is practical even for a moment, when you are working in a difficult situation try and imagine that “this person suffers, as we all suffer.” Over the week, see if it has any impact on your stress levels and experiencing of the job. 

Dr Finian Fallon is a psychotherapist and works at ABC Counselling and Psychotherapy in Kildare Street, Dublin 2, tel:087 666 6425.

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