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Comprehensive Wellness Programs: Maintaining Physical and Mental Fitness

Written by Jody Kasper

Most rookie officers are all too familiar with the arduous physical and psychological demands of a police academy training program. However, this commitment to physical fitness and strength is likely to erode as the officer transitions from recruit to working the street. In recognition of this trend and of the importance of continued high levels of fitness, many police administrators have implemented programs that target physical conditioning.

These policies likely involve annual physical fitness tests, gym stipends or paid workout time. While an emphasis on physical strength and aerobic conditioning is an important part of an employee fitness program, it is far from a complete package. Progressive administrators should consider enhancing existing policies to develop more comprehensive wellness programs.

Hiring Practices

It is important to assess current recruiting and hiring practices before considering a wellness program. Hiring the right people to join a department will dramatically impact the departmental culture and employee health. The Bureau of Justice Statistics 2003 report “Local Police Departments” revealed that hiring practices vary between agencies. Of the agencies surveyed, 85% use medical exams as part of their hiring process, 73% require a drug test, 67% require a psychological evaluation, 50% require a physical agility test and 26% require a personality inventory. Administrators may shy away from some of this testing, citing increased costs. However, great thought and diligence should be used at this juncture, as the wrong employee will likely cost a department a great deal of energy and money over time.

Consistent Sleep Patterns

Perhaps the most significant factor that negatively affects an officer’s health is failure to maintain an adequate sleep cycle. While some employees can easily settle into the night shift, most struggle with the schedule. It is also common for officers to work extended hours ranging from 16-, 20- or 24-hour shifts. Beyond the usual workday hours, officers commonly work overtime in the form of road details, shift overtime, training or court duties.

Many officers also work inconsistent schedules. Some departments, striving for fairness, have policies that require officers to cycle through all shifts, whether there are two or three shifts, depending on the agency, resulting in all personnel being forced to constantly readjust to changing sleep cycles. Of all of the factors that contribute to poor health, sleep inconsistency and deprivation is likely the most significant.

The National Institute of Justice survey results indicated that 53% of officers reported an average of 6.5 hours of sleep per night. It further indicated that fatigued officers use more sick time than their peers, engage in inappropriate and excessive force more frequently, are involved in more motor vehicle accidents, experience more accidental injuries and use poorer communication skills with citizens. Fatigue is also closely linked to obesity and muscle pain. All of these factors contribute to poor overall physical health and serious medical issues such as heart disease and diabetes.

The best solution to prevent officer fatigue is to pay close attention to work schedules. Rotating shift assignments should be avoided. The number of hours that officers are allowed to work without a significant break should be limited. When officers are scheduled for court or training, every effort should be made to consider sleep and consistency in schedules.

Annual Medical Exams

It is not uncommon for people to become lackadaisical about scheduling and attending annual medical physicals. When they feel that they are in good health, they don’t feel it is necessary. When they are in poor health, they may avoid the doctor to avoid bad news. However, consistent annual physicals are an important component of enhanced wellness. Patients will learn important personal care habits and will have the opportunity to address rising medical concerns. This will prevent some medical conditions and will aid in identifying developing problems before they become more serious. Early detection of cancer, heart disease and many other ailments can greatly extend life expectancy and quality of life.

Police administrators can require or request compliance with the recommendation of yearly physical exams. The results of these exams and an employee’s personal medical information should remain private. However, requesting the signature of a person’s primary care physician is appropriate. Some administrators have designed programs that give small rewards to employees who voluntarily participate.

Physical Fitness Tests and Community Events

Many departments require annual physical fitness tests. Departments have varying policies regarding what happens to employees who fail. Some agencies require that an employee be retested after a specified amount of time. If the employee fails again, he is terminated. Other departments have tests each year, but failure does not result in termination. This area should be considered carefully, as the loss of knowledgeable veteran employees will likely have a negative effect on the department as a whole.

Beyond standardized annual fitness testing, some department administrators have instead woven health and fitness into the culture of the agency by sponsoring and promoting community athletic events. Examples of such events include yearly fun runs or walks, bicycle races, softball tournaments or basketball leagues. Participation is voluntary, but employees who participate in these programs can receive rewards such as extra time off, gift certificates or any other creative and appropriate prize.

These programs not only benefit the participating officers by improving their physical fitness, but they also improve police-community relations by involving the public in these events. Further, they provide an excellent opportunity for the police department to promote health and wellness to others.

Nutrition/Health Education

As obvious as it may seem, many people do not have a working knowledge of proper health and nutrition. There are many misconceptions about what foods are healthy. Police officers have the added challenge of limited food options available to them, as restaurants typically close after dinner time. Employees who work the evening and overnight shifts will likely have to purchase their meals at convenience stores or fast food establishments. Educating officers on proper eating habits and nutrition will help them make the best choices.

Some creative administrators have even paired up with local sandwich shops. They have arranged for healthy meals, such as sandwiches and fruit, to be brought to the station during business hours on a daily basis. These foods are then available for the officers on the later shifts. These programs usually require that officers pay a participation fee each week to cover the cost of the food. In general, these meals will be healthier, will cost less and are conveniently available whenever the busy officer has time to eat.

Similar to teaching employees about good eating habits, educating officers on proper lifting and stretching techniques is invaluable. Officers constantly strain their backs, necks and shoulders. Asymmetrical duty belts, extended periods of sitting in a patrol car without stretching, poor lifting techniques and poor body mechanics in general can all be corrected through basic education.

Alcohol and Drug Counseling

A significant problem within the police culture is alcohol and drug use and abuse. Some employees use these substances to help them sleep, to relieve anxiety or as part of a culture that engages in social drinking. One study determined that 25% of police officers are dependent on alcohol.

Preventive education and access to resources are essential components to any wellness program. Overlooking substance abuse issues and contributing to a culture that supports substance abuse is unacceptable behavior for street level supervisors and high ranking administrators. Preventive programs and reactive policies need to be maintained to best assist officers who struggle with addiction.

In addition to policies that target alcohol and drug abuse, smoking cessation programs should also be incorporated into this type of policy. This should include both cigarettes and chewing tobacco, as both have been linked to an array of serious health consequences.

Mental Health Counseling

Once the rookie excitement of foot chases and vehicle pursuits wears off, officers are forced to deal with the harsh realities of the job. Constant exposure to violence, death, victimization, homelessness, poverty and substance abuse is likely to take a toll on a person’s spirit. Many people have developed different techniques to best manage the negativity associated with the job. Some coping strategies are good and some are not. Either way, access to individual counseling sessions is a necessary resource for all officers.

Employee Assistance Programs (EAP) are popular across many workplaces. It is the administration’s responsibility to ensure that employees are aware of this resource, know how to access it, and feel comfortable accessing it. The stigma associated with seeking counseling is less than it was 20 years ago but still lingers. This is particularly true in the predominantly male world of policing where masculinity, courage and strength are highly valued. Consequently, access to mental health assistance must be private, professional and supported by administrators.

Critical Incident Debriefing

In addition to one-on-one mental health counseling, many agencies have adopted policies that detail reactive group counseling in response to a single event. This concept gained momentum after the 9/11 terrorist attacks where emergency responders were exposed to the unimaginable. There are specific events that are likely to elicit feelings of stress, anger, sadness, anxiety and fear. Examples include incidents that result in the death or serious bodily injury of an officer, or officer involvement in use of force that results in the death of a suspect or the death of a bystander. Particularly gruesome crime scenes with multiple victims or child victims may also be difficult for officers to process.

In recognition of these stressful events, the use of critical incident debriefing sessions is necessary. These sessions may be limited to law enforcement personnel or may involve personnel from multiple agencies such as firefighters, paramedics or dispatchers. Whoever is included in the session, it should occur as soon as possible after the event and should be facilitated by a trained mental health counselor who is familiar with leading these types of groups.

Comprehensive wellness programs improve the quality of life for employees, increase life expectancy, decrease disability- related time off, improve retention, enhance morale and ultimately create a better work environment. This in turn improves the quality of service that an agency provides and the image of the department as a whole.

Jody Kasper has been with the Northampton Police Department since 1998 and is currently a patrol sergeant on the evening shift. She also teaches a variety of courses for the Municipal Police Training Council in Massachusetts. She can be reached at jkasper@northamptonma.gov.

Published in Law and Order, Nov 2010

Rating : 9.8


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