There is a link between a daily fitness regiment and injury prevention.
On-Duty Workout Programs: Pro & Con
By: Jody Kasper
Progressive police administrators understand the importance of comprehensive wellness programs for all employees. These programs typically involve strategies that target mental health and physical fitness. A few examples of typical program components include Peer Support Teams, yearly physical fitness tests, access to mental health professionals, and Critical Incident Stress Debriefing Teams.
An additional segment to consider as part of a wellness program is a policy that encourages and supports employees to work out while on duty. These programs are growing in popularity due to the significant benefits they provide to the individual employees, the department as a whole, and to the community that is served.
Early on in the hiring process, physical fitness and medical health play critical roles. Most departments require potential employees to pass a physical fitness test that displays an individual’s speed, strength and agility. Many also require that individuals pass a medical screening that assesses their overall health including their blood pressure, heart rate, and flexibility. If a person successfully passes these hurdles, then he/she may be hired and will enter the police academy.
Police academies typically include a rigorous fitness program that emphasizes cardiovascular endurance and physical strength. Then something strange happens. A department’s focus on physical fitness and health significantly decreases as recruit officer’s transition to working the street.
Some departments maintain small fitness programs, but they are likely to have little impact on actual employee health. This is an unfortunate trend. Attentive administrators should strive to break this cycle and to instead continue their clear commitment to health and fitness throughout each employee’s career.
Current Fitness Programs
Some law enforcement agencies already maintain varying types of physical fitness programs. In general, there are four different practices. The first type involves police agencies that make funding available to contribute toward employees’ fitness activities such as the fees associated with gym memberships, yoga or martial arts. Typically, officers receive a stipend that pays for a portion of the cost or the entire cost of the health membership or class fees.
A second common practice involves police agencies that pay officers for their workout time as long as it is not within their regular duty hours. In many cases, officers come into work early or stay late and work out using fitness equipment that is within the police facility. When in-house fitness rooms are not available, officers are permitted to work out in local gyms or health clubs and are compensated for their time.
Another practice used by some agencies is to require annual physical fitness testing. Though not financially supporting employees throughout the year, the intent is to motivate employees to work out on their own time by having established physical fitness standards that must be met on an annual basis.
One problematic area regarding annual testing is establishing protocol for failure. It can be an expensive endeavor to continue to hire and train new employees when senior officers are relieved from duty due to failure to meet fitness standards. Yet, if there is no consequence for failure, employees may not prepare for the testing. Some agencies have navigated this area by requiring physical fitness testing each year and offering incentives for those who pass.
Examples of incentives include a set number of days off each year (typically 1-5 days), a monetary bonus (such as $500 to $1,000), or even a fitness commendation bar that can be worn on the uniform. These systems focus solely on positive reinforcement and avoid the complications of determining punishment for failure.
Finally, some agencies encourage and support their employees to work out on duty during their regular duty hours. These agencies typically have a policy in place that addresses the technicalities of this employee benefit. This article examines the on-duty workout model and analyzes the advantages and disadvantages of supporting it.
Overview of Policy
In order to maintain a workout on duty program within a police agency, administrators must first ensure there is a corresponding written policy that details how the program will function. This will alleviate potential complications.
All written policies must specify a maximum amount of time that is allotted for physical fitness per shift. In most cases, officers are allowed between 45-75 minutes to work out. This allows a person to complete a quality cardiovascular workout and a small amount of strength and conditioning training. Officers who want to focus on strength might opt to use all of the time for weights.
One of the concerns with any on-duty workout program is that removing officers from the street will weaken the patrol force’s ability to respond to calls for service. To prevent a significant disruption of service administrators should limit the number of personnel who may work out at one time. The number of officers who are allowed to work out will be contingent upon the size of an agency. For agencies that have 6-12 officers on duty per shift, no more than one to two officers should be working out at one time.
Policies must make clear this type of program is a privilege and not a right. The primary goal of public service trumps working out. Therefore, officers must have the ability to respond to calls within minutes. When officers are working out, they must have their portable radios with them and must have quick and easy access to their uniforms and equipment. There is an expectation that, if needed, they will be available within a few minutes’ time to handle calls.
On-duty workout programs are best suited for agencies that have in-house fitness facilities. Off-site health clubs make rapid response and supervision more difficult. Therefore, it is not recommended. However, a state-of-the-art fitness room is not required. Even an antiquated station can easily house one or two cardiovascular machines tucked into an unused office space or a basement.
Successful programs ensure the associated written policy grants full power to the shift supervisor to override the policy at any time. It should be clear to all personnel that the opportunity to work out is not a guarantee on every shift. There will be times when call volume and major incidents make it impractical for officers to work out. In these cases, the supervisor has the authority to override the policy and order officers to stay out on the street.
In addition to the shift supervisor having the authority to keep all personnel on the street, it must also be written that each shift commander has the authority to establish a fair and equitable schedule that is least likely to interfere with patrol duties. For example, the shift commander on the evening shift would likely avoid having officers scheduled to work out Friday or Saturday night at 9:00 p.m. Instead, a better time slot would likely be 3:00 or 4:00 p.m. The specifics of the workout schedule should be determined by each shift’s supervisory personnel.
Advantages of Workout On-Duty Programs
When considering any new program, a police administrator will first want to assess its advantages and disadvantages. The advantages to an on-duty workout program are plentiful. The first benefit, and likely the most obvious, is an increase in individual employee health and fitness. Police officers who sit in cruisers all day, work extended hours, eat on the go, and maintain inconsistent sleep patterns may struggle to stay physically fit. It would be ideal if every officer would spend an hour or two each day engaging in physical fitness activities on their own time.
Unfortunately, this simply does not happen. Work, social and family demands are often in conflict with a consistent exercise schedule. This results in poor overall health and fitness. Officers who make use of on-duty workout programs are likely to experience an increase in their cardiovascular strength, flexibility, and general health. Improved employee health will result in a number of other advantages. Certainly, officers will be better prepared for duty due to their increased strength and endurance. This translates to an increased ability to protect themselves, their peers, and members of the public.
Coinciding with improved fitness is improved overall physical health. This will result in less duty-related injuries and less sick days. How many times have employees been out of work with back, neck or shoulder injuries? These muscles pulls and strains are directly related to an individual’s flexibility, strength and activity levels. It has been said that sitting is the new smoking—inactivity negatively impacts health. The link between a daily fitness regiment and injury prevention cannot be overstated.
One of the biggest advantages to this type of program is an increase in employee morale. At a time when police administrators are struggling to find ways to improve the internal work environment, fitness benefits are a great solution. These types of programs have little to no financial cost, yet produce a significant boost in morale.
Another benefit to on-duty workout programs is they are an excellent recruitment and retention tool. Despite a post 9-11 surge, interest in policing as a career has been steadily declining over the past few decades. Police administrators who are charged with recruitment and selection of new employees have observed a decrease in the number people applying for vacant positions. As a result, many agencies are forced to compete for the limited number of quality candidates. In addition to comparing salaries, these potential candidates are likely to consider extended benefits. On-duty workout programs are incredibly attractive to potential employees.
Finally, maintaining an on-duty workout program illustrates an agency’s commitment to health and fitness. It sends the right message to employees. Most police officers endure a rigorous exercise regiment as part of their academy training program. Rookie officers, fresh from graduation, are often in peak physical form. Then, as time passes, this level of fitness typically decreases. Long hours, shift work, and other responsibilities interfere with a quality fitness routine and cardiovascular health and muscular strength significantly decrease. But it doesn’t have to.
Police administrators should work to continue the commitment to employee health beyond academy graduation and through each employee’s career. Health and fitness can and should be an important, valued aspect of the work environment, and not limited to academy training.
Disadvantages of Workout On-Duty Programs
When police administrators are considering this type of program, the most cited concern is the impact that a temporary reduction in staffing will have on the department’s ability to handle calls for service. It is true this program will result in a slight reduction in the number of officers on the street at any given time.
However, attentive shift supervisors will schedule workouts for the shift hour times that experience the lowest call volumes. Shift supervisors also have the ability to override any scheduled workouts. As calls for service increase, officers who are exercising should be ordered to return to duty. It is unlikely there would be any significant disruption to police services.
A second major concern is potential liability if an employee is injured while exercising. Most departments are responsible for officers while they are on duty. Anyone who is injured is covered by the city or town and will be paid for any sick time that results from an on-duty injury. The best way to research the issue is to contact the city or town attorney and to talk with that person about the potential program.
Employees can be asked to sign a waiver that does not hold the department responsible for injuries that occur while working out. Another possibility is to limit on-duty exercise to cardiovascular workouts, as injuries are less likely to occur when compared to strength and conditioning routines that involve heavy weights.
Another concern of administrators may be the public’s perception of implementing this type of employee program. After all, many people are employed, but most do not have employers who pay workers to exercise. Luckily, because of the tasks that police officers are expected to perform, physical fitness is a key component of success.
A police administrator who is discussing this type of program can point to the strong link between health and the safety of officers and the public. Further, assurances can be made that officers who are working out are available for duty within minutes and that there will be little to no disruption of service to the public.
On-duty workout programs are typically only one piece of a larger comprehensive wellness plan that focuses on total health. These programs have the potential to greatly benefit the employees, employers, and the communities that are served. The end result will be a healthier, stronger, and happier team of officers who are better prepared for the physically and mentally demanding duties of police work.
Jody Kasper has been with the Northampton Police Department since 1998 and is currently a Lieutenant. She is an adjunct professor at Elms College and the author of the books, Progressive Police Supervision: A simple and effective approach for managing a police agency and Improving Motivation and Morale: A police leader’s guide. She can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.