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Research suggests that police work is among the most stressful occupations in the world and officers typically suffer a variety of physiological, psychological, and behavioral effects and symptoms. Officers operating under severe or chronic stress are likely to be at greater risk of error, accidents, and overreactions that can compromise their performance, jeopardize public safety, and pose significant liability costs to the organization. Therefore, this study explored the nature and degree of physiological activation typically experienced of officers on the job and the impact of the Coherence Advantage resilience and performance enhancement training on a group of police officers from Santa Clara County, California.
Areas assessed included vitality, emotional well-being, stress coping and interpersonal skills, work performance, workplace effectiveness and climate, family relationships, and physiological recalibration following acute stressors. Physiological measurements were obtained to determine the real-time cardiovascular impact of acutely stressful situations encountered in highly realistic simulated police calls used in police training and to identify officers at increased risk of future health challenges.
The resilience-building training improved officers’ capacity to recognize and self-regulate their responses to stressors in both work and personal contexts. Officers experienced reductions in stress, negative emotions, depression, and increased peacefulness and vitality as compared to a control group. Improvements in family relationships, more effective communication and cooperation within work teams, and enhanced work performance also were noted.
Heart rate and blood pressure measurements taken during simulated police call scenarios showed that acutely stressful circumstances typically encountered on the job result in a tremendous degree of physiological activation, from which it takes a considerable amount of time to recover.
Autonomic nervous system assessment based on heart rate variability (HRV) analysis of 24-hour electrocardiogram (ECG) recordings revealed that 11% of the officers were at higher risk for sudden cardiac death and other serious health challenges. This is more than twice the percentage typically found in the general population and is consistent with epidemiological data indicating that police officers have more than twice the average incidence of cardiovascular-related disease.
The data suggest that training in resilience building and self-regulation skills could significantly benefit police organizations by improving judgment and decision making and decreasing the frequency of on-the-job driving accidents and the use of excessive force in high-stress situations. Potential outcomes include fewer citizens’ complaints, fewer lawsuits, decreased organizational liabilities, and increased community safety. Finally, this study highlights the value of 24-hour HRV analysis as a useful screening tool to identify officers who are at increased risk, so that efforts can be made to reverse or prevent the onset of disease in these individuals.