The nation’s finest may also be among the country’s most stressed. That’s the conclusion of a new study that found the psychological stresses police officers experience in their work put them at significantly higher risk than the general population for long-term physical and mental health problems.
The findings, reported by University at Buffalo researchers who tracked hundreds of police officers over a 5-year-period, suggest there are significant links between extreme job stress and overall health, obesity, suicide, sleeplessness and cancer.
"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," said lead researcher John Violanti, professor of social and preventive medicine in the UB School of Public Health and Health Professions.
The study, which was funded by the National Institutes of Health and published in the International Journal of Emergency Mental Health, tracked 464 Buffalo Police Department officers. Violanti, a former New York State trooper, sought to determine how 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.
Among the researchers’ findings:
• Shift work appears to raise the risk of developing metabolic syndrome – a cluster of symptoms that includes abdominal obesity, hypertension, insulin resistance, type 2 diabetes and stroke. Nearly half of the officers in the study worked a non-day shift.
• 40 percent of the officers were obese, compared with 32 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, respectively
• 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.
"Usually, health disparities are defined by socioeconomic and ethnic factors, but here you have a health disparity caused by an occupation," said Violanti, "highlighting the need to expand the definition of health disparity to include occupation as well."
He added that police academy training should include helping recruits understand signs of stress and how to get them treated.