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Center for Healthy Minds

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On Patrol to Understand Police Well-Being

When Dan Grupe, a scientist at the Center, set out to begin a pilot study with the Madison Police Department, he didn’t know what to expect. Almost two years into the project, he’s formed deep friendships and gathered insights that have expanded his approaches on conducting research in the field. The pilot study he and other Center experts are leading seeks to understand the unique stressors police officers face on the job and whether mindfulness-based approaches could be useful for them.

Dan Grupe

Now that you’ve finished the first wave of the study, what results surprise you?

What’s most stressful to officers is not necessarily high-speed car chases, domestic disputes and shootings, but rather the organizational grind of policing. Shift work is a stressor – most officers work six days on and three days off, often at different times than their families’ schedules. Another stressor is the reality that anytime an officer gets called, their MO is often opposed to the person they’re responding to. That would be really difficult if I had to deal with that every day at work. As I started talking with the officers more, and started looking at self-report data, I was surprised by how deeply affected many of them were by the stress of the job. Disrupted sleep was an especially common pattern.

The research shows that day-to-day organizational stressors are better predictors of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) than the acute, traumatic stressors of policing. It made me think differently about the training we were delivering and how we could provide officers something to more regularly deal with chronic, low-level stressors.

What makes this workplace stress of interest to researchers?

There’s an aspect of the work that’s inescapable – we’re asking these men and women to go out and be public defenders. The stressors officers face on a daily basis are humbling. It might be pathological if they didn’t show some symptoms of the stress that they are under. What we’re finding, understandably, is high levels of hyperarousal and hypervigilance, which we also have seen in research with veterans. This makes sense because being on guard is a part of training. It’s adaptive. Where this becomes problematic is when this hyperaroused state carries into their personal lives doing ordinary tasks like trying to sleep at night or shopping at the grocery store.

"As I started talking with the officers more, and started looking at self-report data, I was surprised by how deeply affected many of them were by the stress of the job."

Could you share trends of what you’ve found so far in the pilot study?

We need to do more careful analysis of the data, but we’re seeing positive movement on sleep quality. People are saying they’re sleeping better than they have in years and they’re not having to use sleep medications. We had participants wear Fitbits to get an objective measure of sleep quality. We’re also noticing changes in self-report measures, including perceived stress. We’re not changing anything about their environment, work requirements or exposure to these incidents, but they are reporting less stress. We think this may be because they’re viewing events they’re up against as not as severe or they have more resources to cope.

Decreased burnout was also a trend. There are pretty high levels of burnout in this profession. The element of burnout we’re observing is more in the emotional/physical exhaustion category, not in the disengagement category.

How does this influence your approach to science and the greater work you’re doing for the Center outside of a police population?

Doing this work has really forced me to get out of the lab and my comfort zone. I come away from meetings feeling energized by the work – I don’t feel that way sitting at my computer looking at data.

It motivates me to be more engaged with the community and the research I’m doing, and how that ends up taking shape. Officers are a really fascinating model population to work with – they’re exposed to such extreme circumstances and it gives us chances to ask questions about stress and resilience to stress that would otherwise be difficult to get at.

There is a certain amount of mutual admiration and respect which I find really humbling. It really has highlighted to me the importance of relationships – taking the time to establish them carefully before working around a sensitive topic. I really believe we have something valuable to offer the department and they’ve been generous with what they’ve offered us. 

How does this work fit into a larger, national conversation on policing and well-being?

We are taking a bottom-up approach and are seeking to affect individual officers to help them change perceptions of their environment and build resilience to stressful events. At a conference we recently attended, we talked to chiefs from several police departments in California that are seeking organizational change through mindfulness training by integrating it into day-to-day training, and providing officers with a foundation of mindful awareness.

For our own research, the trends we’re seeing so far are on self-report scales. Our next phase of this work is to understand the mechanisms of change. If they are reporting sleeping better – why is that? What’s changing biologically?

We’re applying for grants to do a larger study with a control group to collect very detailed cortisol data to link to how feelings of stress match up to actual cortisol levels. We hope to do brain imaging on a subset of people in that study that would hopefully lead to a more targeted imaging study for an even larger group. 

Interview conducted and edited by Marianne Spoon