The following is a guest editorial written by Althea R. Olson & Mike Wasilewski:
No matter the source, it is clear to anyone who does the job for any length of time that professional burnout is real. It is a common thief robbing officers, agencies and communities of motivation, productivity and dedication to service.
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Burnout seeps from the limited realm of work and infects all aspects of life, especially when personal identity is so closely tied to the professional persona — as it is with so many in law enforcement.
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If a law enforcement officer is going to overcome burnout, the motivation and effort is likely going to have to come from within. We understand this. We’ve also both taken on and survived burnout in our own careers (and will again) and, based on research and personal success, we offer the following proactive steps to successfully combat burnout.
- Rational detachment is the ability to stay calm, in control and professional—even in a crisis moment. It means not taking things personally—even button-pushing comments that attack you’re your appearance, race, gender or competence. The key to not taking things personally includes not becoming too attached to the identity of our careers so as to let them define who we are as a person. Our jobs are just part of our identities. Rational detachment has been the building block of survival for which all other coping skills have been built upon.
- Play harder than you work. We work hard and we play hard. Both are high priorities for our survival, both professionally and personally. When we work hard, it is easier to stay motivated and invested in the job. When we play hard, it stimulates the pleasure area of our brain, which replaces stress and fatigue, and keeps us from getting irritable. A simple formula we use: Whatever the intensity of our workweek has been, our playtime is going to be just as intense or more.
- Meet basic needs by eating healthy, energy-sustaining foods while on the job (nuts, apples and whole grains do the trick for us) and staying hydrated with water. Schedule seven to eight hours of sleep every night and then have a day to sleep-in once a week. Take time for exercise that elevates your heart rate for more than 20 minutes to sweat out stress hormones and release endorphins a minimum of three times a week.
- Identify sources of happiness. What and who makes you smile and laugh? Gravitate towards these activities and people often. Replace negativity with positivity, which may include some relationships in your life. Positive people and activities provide energy and endurance for when negativity appears. Choosing pleasurable people and activities, such as hobbies, builds resiliency, which is the key ingredient for emotional health.
- Eliminate venting as a coping mechanism. Research is showing that venting actually makes a person feel worse because it provides no solutions and only reinforces negative opinions. It keeps a person stuck instead of moving forward. Instead, begin solving the problem or know when to accept it is out of your control.
- Unplug from technology once in a while for three consecutive days. Internet use and smartphones can trigger dopamine releases. Too much dopamine increases feelings of loneliness, irritability and isolation, which in turn can increase impulsive behaviors to fix our negative feelings, such as drinking, excessive spending and the pursuit of adrenaline.
- Have hobbies unrelated to the police world to provide balance.
- Volunteer in an organization where you know you are making a difference and that takes you out of the “cop” identity for a while.