Researchers investigate impact of stress on police officers' physical and mental health

September 26, 2008,

Policing is dangerous work, and the danger lurks not on the streets alone. The pressures of law enforcement put officers at risk for high blood pressure, insomnia, increased levels of destructive stress hormones, heart problems, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and suicide, University at Buffalo researchers have found through a decade of studies of police officers.

UB researchers now are carrying out one of the first large-scale investigations on how the stress of police work affects an officer's physical and mental health, funded by a $1.75 million grant from the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH).

The National Institute of Justice added $750,000 to the study to measure police officer fatigue and the impact of shift work on health and performance.

John M. Violanti, Ph.D., research associate professor in UB's Department of Social and Preventive Medicine in the School of Public Health and Health Professions, is principal researcher of the study, called the Buffalo Cardio-Metabolic Occupational Police Stress (BCOPS) study.

More than 400 police officers have participated in the study to date, with the researchers aiming for 500. The clinical examination involves questionnaires on lifestyle and psychological factors such as depression and PTSD, in addition to measures of bone density and body composition, ultrasounds of brachial and carotid arteries, salivary cortisol samples and blood samples. The officers also wear a small electronic device to measure the quantity and quality of sleep throughout a typical police shift cycle.

Results from Violanti's pilot studies have shown, among other findings, that officers over age 40 had a higher 10-year risk of a coronary event compared to average national standards; 72 percent of female officers and 43 percent of male officers, had higher-than-recommended cholesterol levels; and police officers as a group had higher-than-average pulse rates and diastolic blood pressure.

"Policing is a psychologically stressful work environment filled with danger, high demands, ambiguity in work encounters, human misery and exposure to death," said Violanti, a 23-year veteran of the New York State Police. "We anticipate that data from this research will lead to police-department-centered interventions to reduce the risk of disease in this stressful occupation."

Violanti and colleagues are using measures of cortisol, known as the "stress hormone," to determine if stress is associated with physiological risk factors that can lead to serious health problems such as diabetes and cardiovascular disease.

"When cortisol becomes dysregulated due to chronic stress, it opens a person to disease," said Violanti. "The body becomes physiologically unbalanced, organs are attacked, and the immune system is compromised as well. It's unfortunate, but that's what stress does to us."

The investigation's two most recent studies report on the effect of shift work on stress and suicide risk in police officers, and on male/female differences in stress and possible signs of cardiovascular disease.

Results of the shift work pilot study, involving 115 randomly selected officers, showed that suicidal thoughts were higher in women working the day shift, and in men working the afternoon/night shifts. The findings appear online in the October issue of the American Journal of Industrial Medicine.

Data showed that 23 percent of male and 25 percent of female officers reported more suicidal thoughts than the general population (13.5 percent). In a previous study, suicide rates were three times higher in police than in other municipal workers, Violanti found.

The findings, that in women officers working day shifts were more likely to be related to depression and suicide ideation, while in men working the afternoon or night shift was related to PTSD and depression, were surprising, said Violanti. "We thought both men and women officers would be negatively affected by midnight shifts."

"It's possible women may feel more uneasy and stressed in a daytime shift, where there can be more opportunity for conflict and a negative environment," he said. "On the other hand, higher suicide ideation reported by males on the midnight shift may be accounted for in part by a stronger need to be part of the social cohesiveness associated with peers in the police organization. Working alone at night without the support of immediate backup can be stressful," he said.

Source: University at Buffalo

Explore further: Stress response predictor in police officers may be relevant for military

Related Stories

Stress response predictor in police officers may be relevant for military

December 9, 2011
(Medical Xpress) -- Police academy recruits who showed the greatest rise in the stress hormone cortisol after waking up in the morning were more likely to show acute stress symptoms in response to trauma years later as police ...

Post-traumatic stress risk to police officers lower than previously thought

November 22, 2011
Although police officers are at a high risk of experiencing traumatic events (TE) in their work, they are no more likely than the general population to suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). These are the findings ...

Police officer stress creates significant health risks compared to general population, study finds

July 10, 2012
(Medical Xpress) -- 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. ...

Police officer suicide—it's not just about workplace stress, but culture too

May 3, 2017
The inquest into the tragic death of former New South Wales police detective Ashley Bryant highlights the issue of suicide among police officers.

Study: Stress-induced cortisol facilitates threat-related decision making among police officers

March 21, 2012
Research by Columbia Business School's Modupe Akinola, Assistant Professor, Management, and Wendy Berry Mendes, Associate Professor, Sarlo/Ekman Endowed Chair of Emotion, University of California San Francisco in Behavioral ...

Stress response predictor in police officers may indicate those at high risk for PTSD

November 29, 2011
Stress-related disorders are often linked to people working in the line of fire. In a study led by researchers at NYU Langone Medical Center in collaboration with the San Francisco VA Medical Center and the University of ...

Recommended for you

Fasting diets reduce important risk factor for cardiovascular disease

March 19, 2018
Intermittent energy restriction diets such as the 5:2 diet clears fat from the blood quicker after eating meals compared with daily calorie restriction diets, reducing an important risk factor for cardiovascular disease, ...

Small changes in diet can have a big impact on health

March 19, 2018
How's that New Year's resolution coming along? Getting ready for summer and want to look your best? Just want to feel better physically? Whatever your motivation, Mercedes Sotos-Prieto, an assistant professor of nutrition ...

Multiple screen use affects snack choices

March 19, 2018
Using multiple screen devices simultaneously while snacking may influence food choices, according to a new Michigan State University study.

Exposure to low levels of BPA during pregnancy can lead to altered brain development

March 17, 2018
New research in mice provides an explanation for how exposure to the widely used chemical bisphenol A (BPA) during pregnancy, even at levels lower than the regulated "safe" human exposure level, can lead to altered brain ...

The coffee cannabis connection

March 15, 2018
It's well known that a morning cup of joe jolts you awake. But scientists have discovered coffee affects your metabolism in dozens of other ways, including your metabolism of steroids and the neurotransmitters typically linked ...

Smoking linked with higher risk of type 2 diabetes

March 15, 2018
The prevalence of diabetes has increased almost 10-fold in China since the early 1980s, with one in 10 adults in China now affected by diabetes. Although adiposity is the major modifiable risk factor for diabetes, other research ...


Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.