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A study of methods used by scottish police officers to cope with work-induced stress

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This study investigated how and with what success police officers combat, both off and on duty, work-related stress. Their methods are not particularly successful, and the methods used do not differentiate between gender, rank and duties. While
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  STRESS zyxw EDICINE, VOL. 10 131-138 1994) A STUDY OF METHODS USED BY SCOTTISH POLICE OFFICERS TO COPE WITH WORK-INDUCED STRESS DAVID A. ALEXANDER, MA, PhD, CPsychol, FBPsS zyxw AND LESLIE G. WALKER, MA, PhD, DClinPsychol, CPsychol, ABPsS Department zyxwvut f Mental Health, Medical School, University of Aberdeen, Scotland SUMMARY This study investigated how and with what success police officers combat, both off and on duty, work-related stress. Their methods are not particularly successful, and the methods used do not differentiate between gender, rank and duties. While ‘healthy’ methods, such as exercise, are used, there is a tendency towards the increased use of alcohol, smoking and eating as means of relieving stress. KEY woms-Police, stress, coping. Stress in the work place has become a popular tar- get for research. This has been inspired partly by humanitarian motives but probably more by the need to reduce costs and wastage through absentee- ism, ill-health and unduly rapid staff turnover. Various theoretical models have been proposed to describe the relationship between employees and the stress they experience in the work environment, for instance the influential ‘job strain model’,’ which emphasizes how the psychological strain on the individual worker is due to the combined effect of the work stressors and the opportunities which are available to the worker to influence the nature of his work and the manner in which it is to carried out. Those who are exposed to many pressures and have little say in how the job should be done are the workers most likely to suffer symptoms asso- ciated with anxiety and depression. Other investi- gators have been more concerned with the ‘organizational climate’ and the extent to which Address for correspondence: Dr D. A. Alexander, Senior Lecturer, Department of Mental Health, Medical School, Foresterhill, Aberdeen AB9 2ZD, Scotland leadership styles2 and the employees’ personalities3 contribute to this concept. How individuals learn to adapt to the demands of the workplace and what are the factors condu- cive to poor adaption have also become foci for research and theory development. Some investi- gators have been principally concerned with the role of personality. Kobasa et aL4 proposed that there is a personality type which is stress-resistant; this is the so-called ‘hardy’ ype, which is character- ized by three essential traits. First, these ‘hardy’ individuals have a sense of control over external events. Second, they have a marked sense of invol- vement in and a commitment to their work. Third, they regard unexpected life events as challenges and opportunities for personal development and learn- ing rather than as adverse impedimenta or setbacks. A popular theoretical distinction between meth- ods of co ing was first described by Lazarus and Folkman. They classified methods of coping as ‘problem focused’ or ‘emotion focused’. The former category would include methods which aimed to deal directly with a perceived stressor, whereas the second category referred to a group of methods CCC 0748-8386/94/020131-08 zyxwvut   1994 by John Wiley & Sons, Ltd. Accepted 22 December I993  132 D. A. ALEXANDER AND L. G. WALKER which aimed to regulate the emotional state of the individual. While the strength of this distinction has been challenged,6 here is some evidence that the problem-solving approach is generally more effective than the emotionally focused one.’ On the other hand, it is possible that the relationship between particular methods and outcomes is vari- able, and that what matters more is that the indivi- dual should be able to use flexibly a range of coping methods.’ Although occupational research has been encouraged in many professional and other employment settings in the United Kingdom, there has been a reluctance in the police service to ack- nowledge the extent and nature of stress therein. The climate in the service did, however, change following the establishment in 1981 of a working party by the Association of Chief Police Officers to investigate stress in the service. Since that influential initiative there has been a growing body of evidence which confirms that police work is stressful however defined) and demanding for police officers and their families.g-” There have been a few efforts to explore systema- tically the methods police officers use to cope with the demands of their work, although Evans and his colleagues12 have shown from an Australian study that most police officers prefer problem- focused and direct action methods of coping rather than social supports, self-blame or wishful think- ing. Janik13 has described the cognitive defences used by American police officers after critical inci- dents, and B~nifacio,’~ lso drawing from obser- vations of American police officers, highlights the use of mental defence mechanisms, such as denial, projection and displacement. There is a need, how- ever, for further systematic study of the coping methods used by such personnel. The data in this article, deriving from a major occupational health survey of a Scottish police force,” provide a general picture of the frequency and success with which police officers use on and off duty a range of coping methods to combat work- induced stress. More specifically, the study pro- vides an answer to the question: to what extent do police officers use alcohol, ‘active’ methods such as physical exercise) rather than ‘passive’ methods such as medication) and consult pro- fessionals in an effort to deal with work-induced stress? EXPERIMENTAL STUDY zy Coping questionnaire The research measures used in the parent study” included a questionnaire dedicated to the identifi- cation of how frequently officers used each of 18 methods of coping with work-induced stress while on duty and each of 22 methods of coping with such stress while off duty. The methods listed mainly reflect two influences. First, during the interviews conducted in a pilot study involving about 10 per cent of the police force, reference was made by officers to such coping methods. Second, earlier reports in the police literature identified the possible relevance of specific methods such as the use of alcohol.” Obviously, many other methods could have been presented in this list, but a compromise had to be achieved between producing a comprehensive cata- logue and what it was reasonable to ask of the respondents, given that the section on coping meth- ods was only a small component of a 42-page research booklet which they had to complete for the occupational health project. The response options were: ‘not at all’, ‘sometimes’ and ‘fre- quently’. If a method was not relevant to a respon- dent, helshe indicated this by ticking a ‘not applicable’ column. For example, this would be the case for an officer who was a non-smoker.) To ensure that all respondents used the same frame of reference, to ‘cope’ was defined as ‘what we do consciously to reduce the effects of anticipat- ing or experiencing a stressful work situation’. Moreover, for this study ‘stress’ was defined as that which has ‘an adverse effect on performance, well- being or health’. At the end of the questionnaire officers were asked to rate whether the methods they used were generally ‘not at all’, ‘slightly’, ‘very’ or ‘comple- tely’ effective. Subjects As part of the parent project this questionnaire was sent to all 1014 full-time police officers of the Gram- pian Police Force of the north-east of Scotland. Fourteen of the officers were not eligible for the study, and of the remaining 1000 officers z 58 76 per cent) returned satisfactorily completed ques- tionnaires. The response rates for males and females were almost identical 76 per cent and 75 per cent respectively) but there were differences  STRESS IN SCOTTISH POLICE OFFICERS 133 Table l a) zyxwvusr   Methods of coping with work-induced stress when on duty Method Not at all Sometimes Frequently 1. I work harder 23 48 29 2. I take things easier at work 67 32 1 3. I use relaxation exercises 87 9 4 4. I keep things to myself 19 51 29 z . I talk things over with my colleagues 15 69 16 6. I eat more 62 29 9 7. I eat less 72 23 5 8. I smoke more 27 72 1 9. I smoke less 91 8 1 10. I drink alcohol at work 96 4 0 1 1. I delegate more work 62 35 3 12. I delegate less work 85 14 1 13. I seek spiritual help 91 6 3 14. I take it out zyxwvutsr n colleagues 72 27 1 15. I take it out on the public 71 28 1 16. I take sick leave 95 5 0 17. I take tablets for nerves 96 4 0 18. I take physical exercise during breaks 77 17 6 among subgroups. The response rates for ranks were: constables 73 per cent, sergeants 81 per cent and inspectors and above 89 per cent. Traffic offi- cers had the highest response rate of zyxwv 4 per cent, whereas only 66 per cent of CID officers returned their questionnaires. Overall, 80 per cent of the cohort were married, 22 per cent single and the remainder were divorced, separated or widowed. The mean age was approximately 39 years. The questionnaires were distributed through the police internal mailing system along with SAEs in order that they could be returned anonymously to the investigators at the Medical School, Aberdeen University. This cohort of officers, serving a rural and urban population, had not been involved in any extraordi- nary operational duties such as racial riots or major industrial disputes. In this police force it should be noted that the distinction between ‘operational’ and ‘administrative’ duties is specious; all officers are trained to be ‘operational’. Even those who do spend much of their time at desks are regularly required to fulfil other duties out in the community. The only truly ‘administrative’ employees are civi- lians, and they were not included in the survey. zyxwv RESULTS The percentage frequency with which the officers used different methods of coping with work- induced stress while on duty is shown in Table l a). These percentages refer only to those respondents for whom each method was ‘applicable’ eg some officers were non-smokers and non-drinkers). The extent to which some of the methods would be available to the officers while on duty would vary in accordance with, for instance, their rank and duties. Nonetheless, there are clear trends among the results. Over 70 per cent of the officers work harder nearly a third do so ‘frequently’) when under stress and approximately the same per- centage keep things to themselves. Only a few resort ‘occasionally’ to sick leave or to taking tablets for their nerves. Over a quarter ‘sometimes’ vent their feelings on the public and/or their colleagues. Although the absolute number is small 23 officers), it is worth noting that alcohol is used by some while on duty to cope with stress. The most popular method is, however, to talk things over with collea- gues 69 per cent use this method ‘sometimes’ and 16 per cent use it ‘frequently’). In terms of their overall effectiveness, these 18 methods are described as follows: ‘not at all effec- tive’ 20 per cent), ‘slightly effective’ 53 per cent), ‘very effective’ 23 per cent); the remaining 4 per cent of officers viewed them as ‘completely effec- tive’. A series of 2 x 2 chi-squared analyses with one degree of freedom) were conducted comparing the collapsed categories of ‘sometimes’ and ‘frequently’ against ‘not at all’; to identify any subgroup differ- ences in terms of the officers’ gender, marital status,  134 D. A. ALEXANDER AND L. zyxwvut . zyxw  LKER Table l b) zyxwvutsr   Methods of coping with work-induced stress when off duty Method Not at all Sometimes Frequently 1. I eat more 60 32 8 2. I eat less 77 21 2 3. I drink more alcohol 53 42 5 4. I drink less alcohol 90 10 0 5. I smoke more 38 41 15 6. I smoke less 90 9 zy   7. I take work home or think about work 23 56 20 9. I keep things to myself 21 55 24 10. I talk things over with familylfriends 33 59 8 8. I take things easier 46 45 9 11. I talk things over with a professional person (eg doctor) 95 5 0 12. I seek spiritual help or religious help 91 7 2 13. I take it out on family or friends 54 43 3 14. I use relaxation eg exercises) 84 12 4 15. I take tablets for ‘nerves’ 97 3 0 16. I take sleeping tablets 98 2 0 17. I engage more in sport or physical exercise 46 42 12 18. I engage less in sport or physical exercise 89 10 1 19. I engage more in other recreational activities 52 41 7 20. I engage less in other recreational activities 89 10 1 21. I mix more with friends 56 41 7 22. I mix less with friends 79 18 3 duties and rank. The comparisons between rural and urban officers and those between CID and non- CID officers were conducted only on constables in view of the limited numbers which would have been involved if the other ranks had been used. The probability values reported should be inter- preted in the context of multiple comparisons and the possibility of making a type 1 error. The following statistically significant differences emerge. Female constables are more likely than male constables to take their feelings out on their colleagues x2 = 4.753,~ < 0.05). Male constables, on the other hand, are more likely than sergeants to vent their feelings on the general public (x’ = 7.368, p < 0.05). Sergeants are much more likely than constables to delegate when under stress x2 = 44.213, p < 0.001), but they are less likely to do so when compared with those of the rank of inspector and above (x’ = 10.789, p < 0.05). The use of alcohol on duty is more frequently admitted by CID constables than by their non-CID collea- gues x2 = 20.928,~ 0.001). Urban and rural comparisons generate four sta- tistically significant differences, all at the 5 per cent level of probability. In comparison with rural con- stables the urban ones, when under work-induced stress, work harder (x’ = 5.241), more often take sick leave (x’ = 4.200), more often use alcohol on duty (x’ = 6.788) and take more physical exercise x’ = 3.907). Table 1 b) presents the percentage frequency with which the 22 methods of coping with work- induced stress are used while off duty. Keeping things to themselves is a common method for these officers; 79 per cent use it at least ‘sometimes’ and 24 per cent use it ‘frequently’. About two-thirds, however, also choose to talk things over with familylfriends. Discussing things with professionals and using medication for their nerves or for sleep are not popular methods only 5 per cent, 3 per cent and 2 per cent of officers ‘sometimes’ use them). On the other hand, alcohol is more frequently used; nearly half of the officers increase their alcohol intake at least ‘sometimes’ when under stress and zy   per cent do so ‘frequently’. The overall effectiveness of these off-duty meth- ods is described by 14 per cent of the officers as ‘not at all effective’, by 49 per cent as ‘slightly effec- tive’, by 29 per cent as ‘very effective’ and by only 6 per cent as ‘completely effective’. There are also a number of subgroup differences with regard to individual methods, but fewer than is the case with the on-duty methods. The male/ female constable comparisons reveal that female constables eat less (x’ = 5.441, p < 0.02) and talk things over more frequently with family/friends (x’  STRESS IN SCOTTISH POLICE OFFICERS zyxw 35 Table 2 zyxwvutsr   actor analyses: male officers ~ ~~ ~~~ Factor Descriptor Items Eigenvalue cariance Cum. zy oping on duty 1 Displacement 15,14 2.00870 13.4 13.4 2 Delegation 12,11,7 1.64599 11.0 24.4 3 Illness 17,16 1.33950 8.9 33.3 4 Relaxatiodreligion 3,18,13 1.27440 8.5 41.8 5 Confide 5, -4 1.11402 7.4 49.2 6 Workspeed 1 -2,6 1.07703 7.2 56.4 1 Decrease activity 20,18,22,2 2.74429 15.2 15.2 2 Increase activity 19,21,17,8 2.10326 11.7 26.9 4 Treatment zyxwvut 5,11 I6 1.29300 7.2 42.7 6 Social withdrawal 9,- 10 1.05440 5.8 55.2 Coping offduty 3 Displacement 13,7,1 1.54004 8.6 35.5 5 Relaxationheligion 14,12 1.19848 6.7 49.3 = 4.459, p < 0.05 zyxwvuts han do their male colleagues. The male constables, however, when compared with male sergeants, are more likely to take things easy when off duty x2 = 9.127, p < 0.05 , more likely to use relaxation x2 = 4.791, p < 0.05 and more likely to keep things to themselves x’ = 4.37, p < 0.04). Only one statistically significant differ- ence emerges between sergeants and the higher ranks. Those of the rank of inspector and above are more likely to talk things over with their fami- lies and friends (x’ = 5.732,~ 0.02). As amethod of coping off duty, mixing with friends is used more often by single officers than by married ones x2 = 5.770, p < 0.02 , by rural constables more often than by urban ones k 4.229, p < 0.05), by CID constables more often than by non-CID ones (x’ = 5.263, p < 0.05) and by female constables more often than by male constables x2 = 7.327, p < 0.05). The use of alcohol discriminates only between male and CID constables and non-CID colleagues; the former admitted to the more fre- quent use of alcohol off duty (x’ = 7.065, p < 0.05). The factor structure of the two questionnaires was derived using principal components analysis with Varimax rotation. As a number of the respon- dents did not drink andlor smoke, these items were excluded. The factor structure of the remaining items is shown in Table 2 and the rotated factor matrices in Tables 3 and 4. Separate analyses were carried out for male and female officers, but as the results were likely to be unstable for the latter because of the relatively small number involved, only the structure for male officers is presented. The table also shows suggested descriptors for the factors. DISCUSSION Police officers perform a wide range of operational and managerial duties which differ in their demand characteristics, thereby creating different kinds of perceived stress as well as opportunities for reliev- ing that stress. However, the results of this survey suggest that certain methods of coping with work- induced stress are used with frequencies which are independent of the officers’ gender, duties, marital status and rank. This is true whether the methods are used off duty or on duty. Where differences do occur they are most commonly identified among the comparisons between sergeants and constables. The second general finding is that officers do not show much satisfaction with the methods they use to combat work-induced stress. Only 6 per cent and 4 per cent of the officers respectively think that the methods they use off and on duty are completely effective, whereas 65 per cent and 73 per cent of them respectively think that what they use to cope off duty and on duty are either only slightly or not at all effective. Factor analyses of the two questionnaires in each case yielded a six-factor solution accounting for over zyx 5 per cent of the variance. For on-duty cop- ing, ‘take it out’ either on colleagues or on the pub- lic ‘displacement’) accounted for the greatest amount of variance, followed by delegation of work, taking sick leave or psychotropic medication,
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