Police Work and Poor Health

Police uniform exhibit at the New York City Police Museum.
••• Steven Greaves / Getty Images

If you're looking for a job in criminology or criminal justice, it should be a given that you know law enforcement careers may be hazardous to your health. However, those risks aren't all directly associated with threats that arise in the line of duty. Police work in general is correlated with a host of diseases, illnesses, and ailments.

Dr. John Violanti, professor of epidemiology and environmental health at the University of Buffalo, has written extensively on the impacts of stress and other factors on police officers' health. His research has found that life expectancies for police officers are lower than that of the male population overall. In addition to stress, key factors include exposure to methamphetamine labs, lead, radar, blood-borne pathogens, and more.

Stress

Violanti and colleagues from the University of Buffalo worked closely with the Buffalo Police Department to produce the Buffalo Cardio-Metabolic Occupational Police Stress (BCOPS) study, published in the International Journal of Emergency Mental Health in 2011. The results suggest a strong link between police stress and poor health.

The study was predicated on the belief that the physical and psychological stress police officers face on a daily basis leads to chronic health problems.

Officers regularly are confronted with scenes of death and dismemberment, aggressive subjects, and miserable, upset, angry, or depressed individuals.​

The BCOPS study correlates the daily stress of police work with obesity, suicide, sleeplessness, and cancer. It also confirmed the relationship between sleeplessness, shift work, and overall health, suggesting an increase in metabolic syndrome, which includes abdominal obesity, high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes, resistance to insulin, and possible stroke.

Among Violanti's findings:

  • Obesity occurred in 40% of officers, compared to 32% of the general population.
  • Metabolic syndrome occurred in 25% of officers, compared to 18.7% of the general population.
  • Officers face an increased risk of Hodgkin's lymphoma and brain cancer after 30 years of service.
  • Suicide rates were eight times higher among active-duty law enforcement officers as opposed to those who had retired or resigned from the police force.

Shift Work

Anothe primary factor associated with health issues officers face includes shift work, which is considered to be any hours worked outside of standard daylight hours. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, approximately 9% of the total workforce has nonstandard or irregular hours. By contrast, a majority of the police force is assigned to shift work, either rotating into and out of night shifts or working them permanently.

Shift work negatively impacts sleep, which is every bit as necessary as food and water. Dr. Claire Caruso from the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health and other researchers have done extensive work on the impact of shift work on sleep and health, focusing primarily on nurses, for whom shift work also is common.

Sleep

According to Caruso, humans are hardwired to sleep when it's dark outside, and shift work obviously requires sleeping during nonstandard hours, which goes against our biology. In addition to the biological issue that affects sleeping during the day, there are practical and logistical issues. Officers who have families or who live with people working regular hours often find their sleep interrupted by other people in the home. Even if they live alone, the ambient noise of normal daytime activities can impede daytime sleeping.

Aside from sleep issues, shift work can strain personal relationships and family life if officers go weeks or even months at a time without spending quality time with their friends and families.​​

Caruso's research suggests a lack of sleep and poor sleeping habits contributes to a variety of health problems, including:

  • Decreased mental faculties
  • Decreased immune system
  • Depression
  • Work-related injuries
  • Strained relationships
  • Heart disease
  • Cancer
  • Mood disorders

Staying Healthy

To mitigate stress and its associated problems and improve chances at a happy and healthy life, the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health suggested several steps:

  • When working nonstandard hours, allow yourself enough time to get adequate sleep between shifts.
  • Stay away from heavy foods and alcoholic beverages before going to sleep.
  • Reduce your caffeine intake and stay away from caffeine and other stimulants for several hours before you try to sleep.
  • Choose a quiet, dark, cool, and comfortable place to sleep, especially if sleeping during nonstandard hours.
  • Eat a healthy, balanced diet.
  • Establish and maintain an exercise routine to reduce stress, improve personal health, and help you sleep.
  • If you find you're having difficulty dealing with the stresses of the job or getting enough sleep, seek professional medical help as soon as possible.
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