Police officers face higher stress levels

Usually, health disparities are defined by socioeconomic and ethnic factors, a new U.S. study reveals a health disparity caused by an occupation -- being a police officer.

Physical, mental ailments caused by the job, U.S. study says

Police officers face far greater stress on the job than the general population and also suffer more adverse health outcomes because of it, a new study says. (iStock)

Police officers are at significantly higher risk for a host of long-term physical and mental ailments than the general population due to the daily psychological stress they face on the job, according to a new U.S. study.

The findings demonstrate that police work by itself can seriously affect the health of officers, said John Violanti, the study’s lead author, who is a professor of social and preventive medicine at the University of Buffalo.

"Usually, health disparities are defined by socioeconomic and ethnic factors, but here you have a health disparity caused by an occupation, highlighting the need to expand the definition of health disparity to include occupation as well."

A total of 464 officers with the Buffalo Police Department took part in the study, which will be published this month in a special issue of the International Journal of Emergency Mental Health.

The findings reveal connections between the daily stressors of police work and obesity, suicide, sleeplessness and cancer, as well as general health disparities between police officers and the general population.

Researchers assumed that the danger, high demands and exposure to human misery and death that police officers experience on the job contribute to an increased risk of cardiovascular disease and other chronic health outcomes.

"We wanted to know, in addition to stress, what are other contributing factors that lead to cardiovascular disease in police?," said Violanti, a former New York State trooper.

Shift work, for example, was found to be a contributing factor to an increase in metabolic syndrome, a cluster of symptoms that includes abdominal obesity, hypertension, insulin resistance, type 2 diabetes and stroke.

Nearly half (46.9 per cent) of officers in the study worked a non-day shift compared with just nine per cent of U.S. workers.

"We found that as a group, officers who work nights have a higher risk of metabolic syndrome than those who work day shifts," said Violanti.

Among the study’s other findings:

  • About 40 per cent of the officers were obese, compared with 32 per cent of the general population.
  • More than 25 per cent of the officers had metabolic syndrome, a cluster of symptoms believed to increase the risk of heart disease, stroke and diabetes, versus 18.7 per cent of the general population.
  • Female and male officers experiencing the highest level of self-reported stress were four- and six-times more likely to have poor sleep quality, respectively.
  • Officers were at increased risk of developing Hodgkin's lymphoma and brain cancer after 30 years of service.
  • Suicide rates were more than eight times higher in working officers than they were in officers who had retired or left the police force.

Moreover, the study found that while police officers do have health insurance, the culture of police work often goes against the goal of accessing help.

Police officers who reveal health problems may pay a high price in terms of losing financial status, professional reputation or both, said Violanti. 

"If you have heart disease, you may not be allowed to go back on the street … If you go for mental health counselling, you may not be considered for promotions and you may be shamed by your peers and superiors. In some cases, your gun can be taken away, so there is a real fear of going for help."

Changing the training of officers in police academy is needed so they understand signs of stress and how to get them treated, the study  funded by the National Institutes of Health concludes