Steps for police leaders to prioritize officer wellness
Here's what you can do today and in the long-term to develop a culture of wellness in your department
This feature is part of Police1's Digital Edition, "Smash the stigma: Building a culture that supports officer wellness." Download the guide here.
As a law enforcement leader, you care about officer wellness and have the desire to improve it, but are you actively engaged in the solution?
When you understand how to be part of the wellness solution by focusing on doing and saying helpful things, you can have a greater impact on officer wellness than you may think. Below are five ways you can be part of the solution and help reduce the stigma at your agency today and for years to come.
To prevent is to stop something from happening. Unfortunately, too many departments take a reactive approach to mental health and officer wellness. Early intervention is always going to prevent worse problems from happening and cost less in the long run. This is true for the officer, and this is also true for your agency.
What you can do today: Encourage all your employees to engage in healthy practices. Advocate for nutrition, physical fitness and sleep. Encourage people to talk to professionals at early signs of stress when it comes to critical incidents, physical injuries, health issues, relationship problems and substance abuse. Most importantly, practice prevention efforts for your own wellness.
What you can do in the long term: Invest money and time into prevention programs. These programs include mental health annual check-ins, ongoing mental health and wellness education and training, incentives for wellness engagement and access to early screening tests.
There is something extremely powerful in normalizing the struggle of others and validating their experiences. This can give people permission to not always be "OK." You want to send the message that everyone experiences challenges. When we send the message that we should all be doing just fine, it makes it hard for people to get the help they need and encourages suffering in silence. When no one talks about any of the expected challenges and people find themselves struggling, they think they are damaged, not cut out for the job, or that it is not okay to get help. Over time, that approach can lead to much bigger problems like suicide, alcohol misuse, divorce and health issues.
What you can do today: If you’re a leader and well respected by those around you, your stories carry weight. When you talk about your own experiences of overcoming challenges, going to therapy, taking care of yourself, getting help, having a positive experience with peer support, taking medication, or being significantly impacted by a child death call, you make it OK for your colleagues to feel the same way. Share names of professionals, books, or podcasts that have made a difference for you or that you have heard are great. I highly recommend starting with Dr. Kevin Gilmartin's classic book, "Emotional Survival for Law Enforcement," as well as viewing a recent webinar Dr. Gilmartin recorded on the new stresses afflicting law enforcement officers.
What you can do in the long term: Find ways for leadership to constantly provide the message from the top down that no one is expected to come through a career like this and be invincible. In fact, everyone is expected to have a hard call or life challenge at some point. Overemphasize that you EXPECT that, and that you also expect personnel to get the help they need when they need it so that they can continue their career healthy for as long as possible.
We communicate our views and perspectives all the time with how we say things and what we choose to say. We also communicate non-verbally with the decisions we make that impact others. Being negative, dismissive, or judgmental about topics related to mental and physical wellness can have a significant impact on those around you. Even seemingly innocent comments can have a negative effect.
What you can do today: Pay close attention to what you’re saying and how you’re saying it regarding things related to mental health and wellness (e.g., psychiatric medication, therapy, marriage counseling, 5150 calls, meditation, Alcoholics Anonymous, or someone on workers comp for Post Traumatic Stress). Your comment can potentially influence whether the colleague next to you reaches out for help when they need it.
What you can do in the long term: Say something if you hear someone making comments that you know can contribute to the stigma preventing police officers from getting the help they deserve and need. Something as simple as, "OK, that's enough," or "Man, that's cold." Sometimes you may even have a story that demonstrates the opposite of what they say and catches them off guard. In all these situations it costs you very little but may make them think twice in the future before they say something similar. Holding your co-workers to a higher standard can shift your department's culture and have a long-term influence on reducing the stigma.
In law enforcement, you need the facts. Sometimes that's what ultimately helps drive a point and convinces someone to make a good decision about their own mental health or wellness. It's important to be equipped with accurate information when you’re trying to convince people to follow through with important decisions about their health and wellness.
What you can do today: Stay curious! When you see an article pop up or a podcast regarding health or wellness in law enforcement, check it out. Sign up for and attend wellness training regularly. You will learn more about the possible experiences of your staff when you hear the stories of others who have different experiences than you. You will also be exposed to more ways people can navigate challenges and improve their resiliency.
What you can do in the long term: Help to continually educate your staff and sworn personnel. Not everyone will seek out the training themselves and not everyone is aware of what the problem is and where to find the solutions. Keep the conversation of wellness alive in your department. Continually remind employees what wellness services and resources are available to them through the department. Find ways to bring in relevant speakers and send people to training related to wellness.
Invest in wellness programs you believe will be beneficial to your staff in the long term. The quality of your wellness programs communicates to them how much you care about their wellness. If they finally reach out for therapy and go through your department's employee assistance program that you shared information on, then they are provided with only three sessions and a therapist who knows nothing about their career and the challenges, you have just communicated how little you care about them getting the help they need. But if you invest in a program that ensures your employees will only be directed to culturally competent therapists that specialize in law enforcement and 90% or more have a very positive experience with the process and outcome, that will communicate how seriously you take their mental health and wellness.
When it comes to something as important as wellness you simply cannot take a "do as I say, not as I do" approach. Employees look up the chain of command for what is important and prioritized. If wellness is not important to their supervisors, and they are trying to make a good impression, then it is most likely not going to be important to them.
What you can do today: Practice what you preach. Model good nutritional choices, value sleep when you can, and prioritize your physical health and staying active. Take care of yourself at the first signs of physical injuries and mental distress. Seek help from professionals when you can benefit (e.g., therapist, masseuse, psychiatrist, personal trainer, physical therapist, doctor, cardiologist). Invest in hobbies and people outside of work. Prioritize your family relationships.
What you can do in the long term: Keep your requests and expectations in alignment with your message. If you want your employees to value wellness, then you must also make it the priority of leadership. If leadership says, "We believe in wellness" but then turns around and requires their staff to attend a day-long training right as they are getting off a 24-hour call out, do you think your employees believe that you support or care about wellness? Do you think they see it as something they should also be prioritizing? If you absolutely cannot support your employee's wellness at any given moment, then address the elephant in the room and acknowledge it and explain why this time it is different.
Everyone at an agency has a part in helping the department create a culture of wellness. You don't have the power to change others around you, but you can lead by example. Keep in mind that small things you do and say every day can have large impacts down the road for your employees. Make sure those impacts are leading your agency down the road of improved mental health and wellness for all.
You want employees to engage in habits that improve their wellness to ultimately lead to a healthier workforce. Using incentives to encourage healthier habits can lead to immediate outcomes, but more importantly long-term healthier habits for your staff.
First, you’ll want to assess your department's needs and decide what healthy habits you'd like to increase in your workforce (getting an annual physical, engaging in a program or product the department already has in place, etc.). Then you can consider using incentives and even competition between individuals, shifts, teams, or departments to encourage more engagement.
You can choose smaller rewards (water bottles, department swag, or gift cards) and reward everyone who meets a specified goal. You could otherwise use larger more desirable incentives (Apple Watch, iPad, an expensive experience) and offer employees a chance to enter a drawing if they engage or reach the desired outcome. Another approach is a benefits-based incentive (discounts on insurance premiums, paid time off, etc.).
Many police departments are currently investing in early screening tests for their staff. For physical health, departments can bring in law enforcement-specific companies like Sigma Tactical Wellness to your department to offer advanced cardiac scans and advanced blood tests to catch coronary heart disease and other health issues early on, since fatal cardiac events are so common for police officers and yet most often completely preventable.
For improving the mental wellness of police officers many departments are investing in wellness apps like Cordico, a completely confidential customized app that gives employees 24/7 access to many evidence-based screening measures for an assortment of mental health and wellness categories including post-traumatic stress, anxiety, depression, and ADHD.
An app like this empowers individual employees with knowledge about whether they meet the criteria for a diagnosis, what the next suggested steps for them should be, and immediate access to all the culturally competent resources available to them if they choose to take the next step.
Consider finding good suicide awareness and intervention training for your staff. Bring in local or national speakers who specialize specifically in law enforcement mental health and wellness. These can be professional speakers who maybe have a background in law enforcement or related fields and now focus much of their time speaking on the topic, authors of related books, local licensed therapists who have been vetted and have expertise working well with law enforcement and specialize in important topics that relate to your world such as trauma, stress or relationships.Find local or national conferences geared toward wellness (e.g. IACP Officer Safety and Wellness Symposium, Concerns of Police Survivors National Conference on Law Enforcement Wellness and Trauma) and send peer support team members or wellness advocates within the department.
Ensure your peer support team is trained and certified and also continually attending training and conferences to keep up with trends and changing ideas.
NEXT: Why building trust is critical to building an effective officer wellness program
Dr. Rachelle Zemlok is a licensed clinical psychologist in California, specializing in work with first responder families. She serves as the strategic wellness director at Lexipol, supporting the content and strategy related to first responder mental health and wellness, with a special focus on supporting spouses and family members through the Cordico Wellness App. Prior to joining Lexipol, Zemlok founded First Responder Family Psychology, which provides culturally competent therapy to first responders and their family members. She is the author of "The Firefighter Family Academy: A Guide to Educate & Prepare Spouses for the Career Ahead." For more information on Dr. Zemlok or to connect with her please visit her website.What you can do today: What you can do in the long term: What you can do today: What you can do in the long term: What you can do today: What you can do in the long term: What you can do today: What you can do in the long term: What you can do today: What you can do in the long term: Wellness engagement incentives Consider wellness training opportunities NEXT: Why building trust is critical to building an effective officer wellness program