Despite being one of the backbones of modern societies, in Spain and some European nations, the security forces are mostly unknown. In contrast, in the more developed countries of Europe and the United States, from a sociological perspective, the police and their work have emerged as a line of research with a consolidated track record. The studies in this respect carried out in Spain are geared to general debates, and little attention is paid to the agent’s daily work and the organisation that he or she has to support. Defining a police model and giving the right image is very important. Still, it is no less important to concern oneself with the working conditions of the police force, since this entails efficiency and effectiveness in the service that the agents offer to society and a higher quality of working life for the police themselves.
Stress at work affects both officers and the organisation as a whole in a very negative way, and the costs of these negative consequences are increasing, as organisations which have people suffering from stress will be faced with “organisational symptoms” such as absenteeism, low quality of service, accidents, etc.
WHAT IS BURNOUT SYNDROME?
Burnout syndrome (also called merely “burnout” or “burned-out worker syndrome”) is a type of occupational stress known as chronic.
We could point out that it appears when the person perceives in the environment a discrepancy between what is required and available resources.
The concept of “burnout” or “being burned out” syndrome arises in the 70s (Freudenberguer, 1974), it would be typical of professionals who work with contacts with people, being defined later by Malach and Jason (1981) as a multidimensional syndrome composed of three fundamental symptoms:
- emotional tiredness: the subject feels emotionally exhausted by his or her work and thinks that his/her resources have been exhausted;
- low personal satisfaction: negative evaluation of professional performance. He/she negatively evaluates his/her professional capacity;
- de-personalisation: cold and impersonal behaviour towards the recipients of the services-producing a dehumanisation in the treatment.
Its negative effects affect not only the professional or the organisation but also the clients of the services that the organisation offers. According to many types of research, they have related the “burnout” with low health indexes, insomnia, physical illnesses, with negative collateral consequences such as family and personal problems, alcohol abuse, etc.
HOW DOES BURNOUT SYNDROME AFFECT THE WORK?
In their work, police officers distinguish a certain level of emotional fatigue. It is expected of the police officer to give a good image continuously and to act effectively in solving highly stressful situations despite the personal cost involved. But when emotional and psychological stress becomes apparent, the professional loses the ability, energy or desire to respond optimally to conflicting situations.
The police begin to see and treat the public differently, transforming citizens and service users into “objects without feelings” and responsible for what happens to them.
CAUSES OF POLICE STRESS
- High level of responsibility: some jobs require a high level of attention and concentration on the task at hand. The slightest mistake can have disastrous consequences. An example would be medical staff, on whose hands a patient’s life often depends. These are professions that are subject to high levels of stress and are, therefore, prone to Burnout Syndrome.
- Too long working hours or shifts: another cause of burnout is too long working hours. Jobs where the employee has to stay at work for 10, 12, or even 16 hours can dramatically increase the chance of burnout syndrome.
- Very monotonous jobs: paradoxically, jobs that are boring, repetitive or lack incentives can also be a cause of Burnout Syndrome. The worker finds no motivation in what he or she does, and this causes frustration and stress. Nobody likes to spend hundreds of hours a month doing an activity that does not motivate them at all and with which they are not comfortable.
Sometimes work stress can be caused by the lack of support the employee receives from subordinates, superiors and even his/her colleagues.
If in the previous point the employee was deprived of the necessary support to perform his/her tasks, in this case satisfactorily, he/she goes further and is not only deprived of support but is also subject to mockery, insults, intimidation, threats and even physical violence (known as “mobbing” or harassment at work). This is one of the most severe cases of work-related stress, in which employees often require psychological care.
- Inadequate management of leadership skills by those in positions of power in the distribution of tasks and decision making can be another cause of work-related stress.
- Lack of recognition: the lack of positive stimuli for the worker when he or she achieves something beneficial for the company may be among the causes of work-related stress.
- Environmental conditions in the workplace: inadequate management of the necessary resources the worker needs to feel comfortable in his or her workplace, such as temperature, light or sometimes silence, which can be contaminated with unpleasant noise, preventing the employee from concentrating correctly when needed.
- Lack of resources: one of the most frequent causes in the police field is the lack of means (bad condition, scarcity) to be able to do their work with total guarantees and to be able to offer the best of themselves.
- Relations with the community: public apathy, negative image of the police, little support for their work. The policeman is perceived as an expert offering a vital service to the community but is often treated as an enemy of social welfare.
- Physical danger to officers and concern for their families.
- Poor distribution of honours which creates frustration and feelings of helplessness among officers.
A police officer may be able to cope with stress factors if they feel that their superiors generally know and understand their problems. Still, it seems that in some commands, from the officer’s point of view, instead of removing some pressures, they create new ones. Furthermore, the police officer is not asked to participate in decisions that affect them directly.