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Research Summaries

Public safety personnel’s perspective on occupational stressors

Keywords: Occupational Stress, Operational Stress, Organizational Stress, Public Safety Personnel, Stress, Stressors

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Why was the study done?

Public safety personnel (PSP) report higher rates of mental health disorders and physical health needs in comparison to the general population. For PSP, exposure to potentially psychologically traumatic events (PPTE) appears to be the norm rather than the exception. Researchers have shown that occupational (work-related) stressors can make the effects of PPTE even worse. There are two categories of work-related stressors: 1) Organizational stressors, which include stress caused by organizational structures and the philosophy of a PSP organization; and 2) Operational stressors like shift work and PPTE exposure.

The goals of the current study are:

  • To determine the work-related stressors most commonly experienced by PSP;
  • To get PSP perspectives on these work-related stressors.

What was done in the study?

The data used in the current study was from a large web-based self-report survey that examined many aspects of PSP work and mental health. For the purposes of the study, responses to two open-ended questions were reviewed: “Do you have any other comments or concerns regarding work-related stress?” and “If you have any additional information you would like to provide or additional feedback, please feel free to do so below.” In the case of the second question, only answers that mentioned organizational or operational stress where included. In total, 1238 participants provided answers to the first question, and 828 participants provided additional feedback through the second question. These answers were coded into emergent themes.

What did we find out?

Seven themes were identified. The themes were broken up into organizational and operational stressors.

Organizational Stressors:

  • Interpersonal work relationship dynamics. Participants indicated that supervisors and co-workers could add stress. Supervisors added stress by creating an environment of perceived unfairness or harassment. Some participants also reported experiencing or witnessing bullying and/or harassment from co-workers.
  • Workload distribution. Participants are affected by the lack of available staff and empty positions. When co-workers take holidays or are on leave, PSP experience increased workloads due to a lack of backfill.
  • Resources. A lack of material resources, like equipment, affect the PSPs’ ability to perform their duties. Participants report that funding directed to PSP is insufficient to meet their obligations to the community.
  • Administrative obligations. Participants reported paperwork as a stressor, which increases their workload significantly. Some participants reported feeling frustrated by paperwork increases rather than their actual job duties.

Operational Stressors:

  • Vigilance. PSP felt that their work life seeped into their home lives because they are aware of possible risks and always feel like they are on call. Some participants also reported feeling they had to remain vigilant to protect their families from work-related threats.
  • Work location. Many PSP work in rural areas that are largely unknown to them until after deployment. In some PSP occupations, PSP described being routinely cycled to new work locations. The lack of knowledge can be stressful. They may also have to work alone or with just one co-worker in remote locations.
  • Interacting with the public. The public’s idea of PSP professions, often gained from popular media or the news, can create negative stereotypes of PSP and a lack of understanding about the full scope of PSP work. This lack of knowledge can lead to stressful or even harassing interactions with the public. PSP can feel blamed for policies and practices that are beyond their control.

Where do we go from here?

This study highlights that it is not only exposure to PPTE that creates stress for PSP. While the survey data has many limitations, the participants’ perspectives indicate areas where these stresses could be reduced. Organizations need bullying and harassment policies that are effective, accessible, and transparent. There should also be transparency in workload distribution and sufficient staff. In addition, streamlining or centralizing administrative responsibilities may free up time. While there are limitations to stress reduction for PSP, organizational changes may help reduce the burden.

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

Original Study

Ricciardelli, R., Czarnuch, S., Carleton, R.N., Gacek, J., & Shewmake, J. (2020). Canadian Public Safety Personnel and occupational stressors: How PSP interpret stressors on duty. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health 17 (13), 4736. https://doi.org/10.3390/ijerph17134736

Lay summary provided by Kossick, E. Edited & reviewed by Barootes, B & Ricciardelli, R.

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