Developing and Preserving Wellbeing at the Frontline of New Zealand Police
Gavigan, Kathleen Mary
New Zealand’s health and safety legislation now requires employers to manage exposure to hazards that result in stress and fatigue. Although policing is defined as a high stress occupation, due to the dangerous and unpleasant nature of the work, prevalence rates for posttraumatic stress disorder are generally low. Nevertheless, there is a need to identify hazards, as there is no consensus on police-specific hazards and their management. There is also a lack of research on the aspects of the police work environment that promote wellbeing. Thus, this research asks what keeps officers well, what aspects of police work might adversely affect officers and how might exposure to psychosocial hazards be managed? Its focus is on frontline police officers’ experiences of police work and their conditions of deployment. Grounded Theory is used to reach an understanding of officers’ perceptions and interpretations of their work as well as the conditions of variation and how these are associated with the outcomes of exposure. Unstructured, in-depth interviews were conducted with sixty-one officers across a range of police roles and two field observations were undertaken. Incidents in the data were analysed using the constant comparison method and processes, conditions and consequences of exposure were identified, in relation to both wellbeing and adverse effects. Dealing with death, victims of violent crime, confrontation and criticism, work overload and unsupportive aspects of the work environment are areas of concern for officers. Exploring and analysing these issues led to the development of a dynamic and interactive model that relates emotional reactivity to learning from experience. Through the interacting processes of habituation and sensitisation, officers develop knowledge and expectancies that enable automatic responding, a task focus and perspective taking. Organisational structures, systems, practices and niches that enable a fit within the organisation, are all essential to developing means of control. Thus, officers acquire mastery of problematic situations, mental barriers and a self-efficacy belief, which reduce emotional arousal, enable avoidance of adverse consequences and keep them well. However, under- or over-exposure to emotionally challenging aspects of police work, without an adequate means of control, can lead to prolonged sensitisation and an inability to re-establish habituated responding, which may adversely affect officers occupational functioning. It is argued that four conditions associated with repeated exposure need to be managed, namely empathic over-arousal, tunnel vision, inadequate recovery intervals and unresolved practice issues. Furthermore, in the absence of the organisational provision of means of control, officers act to ensure their survival in the job. While this is protective for officers, it may have unintended consequences for the police organisation and so a collaborative approach is needed to resolve persistent practice dilemmas. This research highlights the importance of conceptualising cumulative exposure to aversive situations and avoidance behaviour, as having both beneficial and adverse effects. Although emotional detachment is often viewed as an unhelpful aspect of police culture, this needs to be distinguished from emotional suppression since detachment itself appears to keep police officers well.
Advisor: Shannon, Pat; Briggs, Lynne
Degree Name: Doctor of Philosophy
Degree Discipline: Sociology, Gender and Social Work
Keywords: police; stress; trauma; hazard identification; resilience; sensitization; risk
Research Type: Thesis