The daily psychological stresses that police officers experience in
their work put them at significantly higher risk than the general
population for a host of long-term physical and mental health effects.
That’s the overall finding of a major scientific study of the Buffalo
Police Department called Buffalo Cardio-Metabolic Occupational Police
Stress (BCOPS) conducted over five years by a University at Buffalo
“This is one of the first police population-based
studies to test the association between the stress of being a police
officer and psychological and health outcomes,” says John Violanti, PhD,
professor of social and preventive medicine in the UB School of Public
Health and Health Professions, and principal investigator on the study,
funded by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health.
research, which is in press this month in a special issue of the
International Journal of Emergency Mental Health, reveals connections
between the daily stressors of police work and obesity, suicide,
sleeplessness and cancer, as well as general health disparities between
police officers and the general population.
The study was
prompted by the assumption that the danger, high demands and exposure to
human misery and death that police officers experience on the job
contribute to an increased risk of cardiovascular disease and other
chronic health outcomes.
“We wanted to know, in addition to
stress, what are other contributing factors that lead to cardiovascular
disease in police?,” says Violanti, a former New York State trooper.
study found, for example, that shift work is a contributing factor to
an increase in metabolic syndrome, which is a cluster of symptoms that
includes abdominal obesity, hypertension, insulin resistance, type 2
diabetes and stroke. Nearly half (46.9 percent) of officers in the BCOPS
study worked a non-day shift compared to just 9 percent of U.S.
“We found that as a group, officers who work nights have
a higher risk of metabolic syndrome than those who work day shifts,”
Four-hundred-sixty-four police officers participated in the study. Among the findings:
-- 40 percent of the officers were obese, compared with 32 percent of the general population
more than 25 percent of the officers had metabolic syndrome, a cluster
of symptoms believed to increase the risk of heart disease, stroke and
diabetes, versus 18.7 percent of the general population
-- female and
male officers experiencing the highest level of self-reported stress
were four- and six-times more likely to have poor sleep quality,
-- officers were at increased risk of developing Hodgkin’s lymphoma and brain cancer after 30 years of service.
Suicide rates were more than eight times higher in working officers
than they were in officers who had retired or left the police force.
finding challenges the common assumption that separated or retired
officers are at increased risk for suicide,” says Violanti, noting,
however, that the need for suicide prevention efforts remains important
for both active and retired officers.
The BCOPS findings demonstrate that police work by itself can put officers at risk for adverse health outcomes.
health disparities are defined by socioeconomic and ethnic factors, but
here you have a health disparity caused by an occupation,” says
Violanti, “highlighting the need to expand the definition of health
disparity to include occupation as well.”
Violanti adds that
while police officers do have health insurance, the culture of police
work often goes against the goal of improving health.
culture doesn’t look favorably on people who have problems,” he says.
“Not only are you supposed to be superhuman if you’re an officer, but
you fear asking for help.” Police officers who reveal that they suffer
from a chronic disease or health problem may lose financial status,
professional reputation or both, he explains.
“If you have heart
disease, you may not be allowed to go back on the street,” he says.
“That’s a real threat. If you go for mental health counseling, you may
not be considered for promotions and you may be shamed by your peers and
superiors. In some cases, your gun can be taken away, so there is a
real fear of going for help.”
The answer, Violanti says, is to
change the training of officers in police academy so they understand
signs of stress and how to get them treated.
need to receive inoculation training against stress,” says Violanti. “If
I tell you that the first time you see a dead body or an abused child
that it is normal to have feelings of stress, you will be better able to
deal with them; exposure to this type of training inoculates you so
that when it does happen, you will be better prepared. At the same time,
middle and upper management in police departments need to be trained in
how to accept officers who ask for help and how to make sure that
officers are not afraid to ask for that help,” he says.
study is based on extensive and rigorous medical testing and integrates
a broad range of psychological, physiological and subclinical measures
of stress, allowing for correlations between on-the-job stress and
stress biomarkers that reveal the potential for adverse mental and
physical health outcomes.
Violanti and his co-authors note: “This
study would not have been possible without the cooperation of the
Buffalo Police Department administration, the Police Benevolent
Association and the exceptional men and women of the Buffalo Police
Department. Our sincere thanks to them, as we look forward to our
follow-up study.”This article was first published at www.newswise.com