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Research Summaries

Coping strategies for managing work-related stress among PSP

Keywords: Coping, Mental Disorders, Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), Traumatic events

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Why was the study done?

Personal coping strategies are vital to the self-care of public safety personnel (PSP). Many PSP develop strategies to help them recognize and process the stress, both physical and psychological, of their jobs. These strategies fall into two categories:

  • Approach coping (adaptive), which is typically seen as more effective, and can include seeking social support or engaging in techniques like mindfulness, positive reframing, and acceptance; and
  • Avoidance coping (maladaptive), which can involve withdrawing, active denial of issues, wishful thinking, and suppression of emotions/thoughts, or substance use.

This study was designed to explore the coping strategies identified by participants in a large sample with a 44.5% rate of positive screens for mental health disorder symptoms. The study focused on the adaptive strategies that the PSP reported using.

What was done in the study?

The current study drew on data from the large survey of PSP first reported by Carleton et al., 2017. For the present study, 828 participants who reported previously poor mental health and now felt they were “doing much better” or “doing better” responded to an open-ended question on the survey that asked them to share “any additional information or feedback.” Respondents came from all PSP sectors, with the largest groups being from the RCMP, paramedicine, municipal police, and firefighters. The open-ended responses were analyzed to identify themes.

What did we find out?

  • Participants reported using three primary adaptive coping strategies:
    • Education
    • Self-reliance
    • Treatment
  • Education, such as learning about the causes, consequences, and treatment of mental health disorders, was reported as helpful for reducing internalized stigma about mental health disorders.
  • Key education shown to help coping:
    • Learning about hereditary or environmental elements of mental health disorders.
    • Learning how potentially psychologically traumatic events or other stressors can impact the brain.
    • Understanding how Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is associated with alterations in the brain.
  • Self-reliance coping was typically seen in behavioural changes or intentional changes to coping strategies, addressing issues “head on” rather than through avoidance.
  • Key strategies included:
    • Self-reflection;
    • Improving sleep habits and sleep cycles;
    • Learning new coping strategies to increase their coping “toolbox”;
    • Adapting work hours (changing shift or department);
    • Decreasing alcohol consumption; and
    • Spending time alone (such as in exercise, meditation, or mindfulness activities).
  • Treatment seeking and undergoing treatment were used by all occupations and genders.
  • Key methods included:
    • Medication
    • Psychotherapy
    • A combination of medication and psychotherapy
  • Several participants reported doing better after treatment, but they shared that they had experienced several barriers in attempting to find care.
  • Participants felt the barriers to getting evidence-based treatment were the employer’s responsibility.
  • Participants almost always emphasized the importance of support from co-workers, families, and friends.

Though the focus of the study was on adaptive coping strategies, it is important to note that participants reported using maladaptive coping strategies.

Where do we go from here?

More work needs to be done in researching effective coping strategies and improving PSP culture around mental health. Educational programs in the workplace help participants learn healthy proactive coping strategies, recognize developing disorders, and become aware of treatment and support options.  Participating PSP expressed a desire for their employers to take more interest in their mental health. PSP employers may benefit from initiating evidence-informed educational courses and support programs to help PSP manage stress as well as minimize the frequency and impact of mental health injuries.

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

Original Study

Anderson, G.S., Ricciardelli, R., Tam-Seto, L., Giwa, S., & Carleton, R.N. (2022). Self-reported coping strategies for managing work-related stress among public safety personnel. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, 19, 2355.

Prepared by Kossick, E. Reviewed and edited by Barootes, B. &  Anderson, G.S.

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