The Relative Impact of Various Stressors on Public Safety Personnel

Why was the study done?

Public Safety Personnel (PSP) regularly come in contact with potentially psychologically traumatic events (PPTE). Further, PSP experience occupational stressors that include organizational challenges (e.g., staff shortages, inconsistent leadership styles) and operational challenges (e.g, shift work, public scrutiny). The current study was done to better understand the occupational stressors experienced by PSP as well as assess for relationships with potentially psychologically traumatic events, mental health challenges, and mental disorders.

What was done in the study? 

A final sample of 4,820 participants (32% female) completed online questionnaires about: their employment sector; occupational stressors (e.g., dealing with coworkers, staff shortages, inconsistent leadership); the number of PPTE they have experienced directly or indirectly on the job (i.e., 16 different types of PPTE were assessed); and a wide range of symptoms of mental health challenges and mental disorders (e.g., Posttraumatic Stress Disorder, Major Depressive Disorder, Generalized Anxiety Disorder, Social Anxiety Disorder, Panic Disorder, and Alcohol Use Disorder, among others). 

What did we find out? 

  • PSP report significant exposure to occupational stressors in the workplace, such as inconsistent leadership styles, staff shortages, a workplace culture perceived as unsupportive, shift work, and public scrutiny.
  • Perceived occupational stress was strongly associated with evidence of mental health disorders, even after accounting for PPTE exposures.
  • PSP are unavoidably exposed to a range of PPTE (on average our participants reported experiencing 11 of 16 types of trauma that were assessed), and the self-reported exposures appear associated with mental health disorders.
  • In most cases, the associations between occupational stressors were more associated with some mental disorders than with PPTEs. 

Where do we go from here?

The relationships between PSP perceptions of occupational stressors and their mental health challenges do not necessarily mean one causes the other. The relationship may be more complex than can be identified with the current cross-sectional data; nevertheless, the current study suggests further investigations are needed to understand the role of occupational stressors in PSP mental health. Longitudinal research may help to clarify specific questions about causation. Research into reducing occupational stressors may identify ways to help manage, and perhaps even prevent, some mental health challenges. Future studies may involve clinical interviews or behavioural information to gather more complete and in-depth information about different stressors and their impact on PSP mental health. In the interim, efforts should focus on examining leadership training and support, increased organizational engagement, increased staffing, reduced stigma, improved sleep, and strengthening social support.

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Original Article: Carleton, R.N., Afifi, T.O., Turner, S., Mason, J.E., Ricciardelli, R., McCreary, D.R., Vaughan, A., Anderson, G. S., Krakauer, R., Donnelly, E.A., Camp, R.D. II, Groll, D., Cramm, H.A., MacPhee, R.S., & Griffiths, C.T. (2020). Assessing the relative impact of diverse stressors among public safety personnel. International Journal of Environmental Research & Public Health 17 (4), 1234.

Summary prepared by:  Martin, R. Reviewed and edited by Carleton, R. N., 2020

Risk Factors for Mental Disorder Symptoms in Police

Why was the study done?

Police, like all public safety personnel (PSP), are exposed to stressful and potentially psychologically traumatic events as part of their jobs, which can lead PSP to suffer mental health disorders. Demographic risk factors like sex, marital status, education level, and years on the job, and cognitive risk factors like Anxiety Sensitivity (AS; fear of anxiety symptoms) and Intolerance of Uncertainty (IU; worry about uncertain future events), may be related to the development of mental disorder symptoms. Understanding the relationships between these potential risk factors helps to support the development of new protocols and training to support police mental health.

What was done in the study?

PSP were recruited through their employers, organizations, or public announcements to participate in an online survey assessing mental health symptoms; specifically, symptoms of Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), Major Depressive Disorder (MDD), Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD), Panic Disorder (PD), and Social Anxiety Disorder (SAD), as well as reporting their levels of AS and IU. Participants also completed demographic questions. The current results focus on responses from participants who self-identified as police officers. Data for the current study results were provided by 979 police officers (708 males, 271 females).

What was found?

•  There were no statistically significant relationships between education, marital status, years of service, and mental health symptoms, or with AS and IU.

•  A person’s sex had a significant effect on all measures (excluding SAD and AS); indicating females experienced more mental disorder symptoms.

•  After controlling for sex, AS and IU measures showed a higher correlation with mental disorder symptoms than sex alone (i.e. the higher the AS and IU scores the more likely a person will have mental disorder symptoms).The result indicates AS and IU may be more influential in the development of mental health disorders than demographic risk factors.

Where do we go from here?

The study results are based on a snapshot of participants. Going forward, data should be collected from a larger group of participants over a longer period. The current results do indicate two trends: 1) female police are more likely to experience mental health issues; 2) cognitive risk factors appear important to the development of mental health disorders. The trends suggest further research directions for developing proactive approaches to mental health because AS and IU can be changed with training. Proactive, evidence-based training might be a key to limiting mental health issues in the police.

The original wording of the study was changed and condensed for the current lay summary

Original Study

Korol, S., Vig, K., Teale Sapach, M.J.N., Asmundson, G.J.G., & Carleton, R.N. (in press). Demographic and cognitive risk factors for police mental disorder symptoms. The Police Journal: Theory, Practice and Principles, 1-18. doi:10.1177/0032258X19894619

Lay Summary prepared by Kossick, E., Reviewed and Edited by Carleton, R.N. & Martin, R .