Critical incidents are an important cause of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in police officers, but routine work environment stressors are also risk factors.
Critical Incidents as PTSD Risk Factors
Police officers are frequently exposed to traumatic stressors; for example, they are expected to cope with many types of critical incidents such as situations of abuse, those involving victims of serious accidents and hostages, riot control, violent confrontations, faded resuscitation attempts, and assistance in disasters.
As a result, critical incidents have been examined by researchers as an important source of mental health symptoms among police officers. A critical incident is a potentially traumatic event which may cause a given individual’s emotional resources to become overtaxed, resulting in a spectrum of reactions from exhaustion to increased and unrelenting mental health symptomatology.
Critical incidents often include a component of life threat and may range from being threatened (e.g., with a knife or gun) to direct exposure and/or injury (e.g., accidental or intentional).
As examples, shooting incident has been high on the list of critical incidents for police officers, and situations such as being called to the scene of a battered or dead child is also ranked extremely stressful.
In a 1997 research report, researcher say they examined 100 police officers who were assigned to street patrol, and asked the officers to report critical incidents with questions such as "Have you ever had to discharge your weapon in the line of duty?", and to rate the level of stress associated with the incident, e.g., "If yes, how stressful was the experience for you?"
These officers reported highly stressful situations such as being shot at, being physically threatened, or having their families threatened, and working with victims who were badly beaten or who had family members lulled.
Among all the impact factors reported, death encounter was the strongest predictor for total PTSD symptomatology and intrusive traumatic memories.
Routine Work Environment Stressors
Although research studies have suggested that critical incidents are the driving force behind development of PTSD, there are also studies that highlight routine work environment stressors as playing an important role in the development and maintenance of police officer psychological distress.
For example, other than critical incidents, research studies identified highly ranked work environment stressors such as lack of consultation and communication, lack of control over workload, inadequate support, and general excessive workload, as well as dissatisfaction with organizational support.
These routine work environment stressors also predict PTSD symptoms in police officers.
In a 2009 research report, researchers say they examined 180 police officers from New York and San Francisco, and they concluded that work environment had the strongest association with PTSD symptoms, above and beyond the effects of exposure to duty-related critical incidents and negative life events outside police service.
This study highlights that work environment stressors such as equipment not working, daily operational hassles, being unclear about work roles, stressful relationships with coworkers, feelings of discrimination, etc. have a direct impact on PTSD symptoms.
Thus, although the police department has little control over exposure to critical incidents and negative events that occur across the lifespan, a protective work environment can be a valuable and attainable asset for young police officers.
Researchers say that a supportive work environment can even buffer against the development of PTSD in those who have been exposed to horrific critical incidents and are experiencing unpredictable negative life events in their personal lives.
Maguen, Shira, et al. “Routine Work Environment Stress and PTSD Symptoms in Police Officers.” The Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease, vol. 197, no. 10, 2009, pp. 754-760.
Robinson, Holly M., et al. “Duty-Related Stressors and PTSD Symptoms in Suburban Police Officers.” Psychological Reports, vol. 81, 1997, pp. 835-845.