How to Avoid Burnout

Burnout is a modern American pandemic. Almost anybody who works an office job in this country has, at one time during his or her career, experienced apathy and lethargy while on the clock.

Author Dean Scoville Headshot

Burnout is a modern American pandemic. Almost anybody who works an office job in this country has, at one time during his or her career, experienced apathy and lethargy while on the clock.

For most burnout sufferers, the condition results in nothing more dangerous than a feeling of career dissatisfaction and general unhappiness. But for cops, the dangers of burnout have very real and potentially fatal consequences. In the field, it can result in haphazard or lackadaisical approaches to the job. For example, once-dependable arbiters of the peace become short tempered and tactless. It can also make hard-charging, “go get ’em” cops timid and apathetic. Worse, burnout can be a metastasizing cancer that spreads through a patrol shift, station, or even department like a pandemic plague.

A Self-Inflicted Wound
Dr. James T. Reese, a former federal agent cum psychologist, characterizes burnout as a “self-inflicted attitudinal injury” that most often occurs when demands exceed resources. “Burnout is often the case of an over-commitment to your job, which ironically results in an under-commitment to it,” he says.

Burnout is likewise a byproduct of unreasonable expectations or demands on the parts of both the burnout candidates and the people they work with. People who identify strongly with their jobs are susceptible; moreso when they try to achieve or maintain unrealistic performance standards. They become so wholly invested in the job that whatever pleasures or distractions external activities may have once provided are largely gone.
“Your job is supposed to support your life, not vice versa,” notes Reese. “Unfortunately, we forget the holistic nature of the job.”

Dissatisfied at work, burned-out employees can find themselves indulging in self-destructive behavior such as gambling, alcoholism, and other diversions. These behaviors inevitably factor into another threat: burnout’s ability to perpetuate itself. Dissatisfied employees increasingly commit themselves to any given enterprise with the same calculated indifference, garnering criticism from unimpressed supervisors, getting pissed off themselves, and seeking solace elsewhere, which ensures that the cycle repeats itself.

Reese recognizes that officers are often underappreciated, but he doesn’t absolve officers for their own culpability. He says it is a personal decision as to whether an officer decides to be “better or bitter.”

“You can sit around and moan, ‘woe is me,’ or you can do something about it. This is the time that an officer should consciously talk himself up, especially if others are getting him down. There’s no sense in browbeating oneself and feeling like crap, particularly when it just stands to reward the bad behavior of others.” In other words: Don’t let the bastards get you down.

That cops who would be vigilant against surrendering their sidearms should abdicate control of their emotional responses to others is confounding to burnout experts. For not only do they empower others, but they leave themselves vulnerable to attacks that can be as debilitating as any physical assault.

And just as officers practice good survival skills in the field, Reese notes that they need to keep growing personally and professionally. But the impetus for doing a good job must be internal in nature, not the expectation of some external reward, which often isn’t forthcoming anyway.

When it comes to averting burnout, sometimes it’s not a matter of performing the job well because of someone, but doing it in spite of them.

“Cops are risk-takers, adrenaline junkies,” observes Reese. “They enjoy the rush of doing the job well. When you lose that, you’re not stimulating anyone, and you lose your own inspiration.”

Motivational Problem
Dr. Beverly Potter, author of “Overcoming Job Burnout: How to Renew Enthusiasm for Work,” has also worked with law enforcement officers. She notes that while burnout is often seen as a stress problem and has been sold as such, she views it more as a motivational problem.

“When they suffer what they see as a loss of control, their motivation is destroyed,” says Potter. “Studies have been done up and down the animal kingdom. And time after time, we find that if you deprive living beings of their control, they often die. When it comes right down to it, we are all control freaks. Unfortunately, cops have enough problems just doing the day-to-day job without having to worry about the likes of the ACLU or some other clowns looking over their shoulders, looking to get their defendants off, and getting the cops in trouble.”

The loss of control that cops feel in their lives is magnified by the fact that they have to grin and bear the nastiest criticism from the public. “Everyone loves to rag on cops, and it’s a one-sided dynamic: Cops are not allowed to lash back,” Potter says. “The tight reins imposed upon them by policy and procedure creates the perceived or actual loss of control, which leads to burnout.”

Potter points out that some of the most likely candidates for burnout include officers who work in bureaucracies that place greater demands upon them to do the job even as they simultaneously inhibit them from wanting to.

Another big factor is the pronounced lack of empathy from the citizens that officers ostensibly serve, which has always been a problem.

Changes in police culture have also contributed to officer burnout, especially among male cops. “There’s a cultural war on maleness and, when you combine that with a feminization of police culture, you’re creating a powder keg,” Potter explains. “Add this to the dozens of mindbending, mutually exclusive demands, then it is not too surprising that cops have high incidences of alcoholism, divorce, and other self-destructive behavior, all of which are reflective of an individual’s inability to deal with burnout.”

Potter acknowledges that while the job is stressful, full of “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” dynamics, cops can often deal with the stress in the street. It’s the in-house and in-mind stuff that gets the better of them.

“Stress is not synonymous with burnout; it is a symptom. You can bring down the fever and still not have an impact on the illness. You have to treat the root cause for it,” Potter explains. “When you consider the types of less stressful catalysts that have caused others to do outrageous things, I am surprised that I don’t see more cops whipping out their guns and wiping out people five times a day. Thankfully, they’re a different breed. But that doesn’t mean they’re immune from frustration.”

Know Thyself
Almost every working person in America experiences some effects of burnout. But there are ways to mitigate those effects and keep them under control.

The most critical step to combating burnout is to realize that you are having the problem. In other words, know thyself.

Knowing thyself includes being aware of just what type of personality you have and what buttons you have for others to push. If you’re more of the authoritarian/task-oriented type of individual, you are far less apt to get stressed out by the opinions of others.

Getting in touch with yourself might mean getting in touch with your physician. Candidly lay out your concerns, describing any changes in personal behavior or physiological symptoms that you’ve noticed. And, yes, psychological counseling might be just what the doctor orders.

Slowing things down and taking a breather is also important, as is getting enough sleep. Considering that the average American worker does not get the recommended eight hours of sleep a day, it’s not surprising that many officers—who have much more stressful jobs than office workers—suffer from sleep deprivation. The nuances of the job are difficult enough without factoring in the realities of shift work and court in the morning.

What you eat can also have an effect on your outlook. So eat a balanced diet. Eating well can invigorate and energize you, perhaps even compensate for periodic lapses of sleep.

Exercise is also critical to your mental and physical health. Getting the blood flowing in your mind and body can stave off fatigue and apathy while keeping the body in condition and prepared to do battle at a moment’s notice.

Coping Mechanisms
Picture yourself near a stream. Birds are chirping in the crisp, cool mountain air. Nothing can bother you here. No one knows this secret place. You are in total seclusion from that place called the world. The soothing sound of a waterfall fills the air with a cascade of serenity….

The water is so clear that you can easily make out the face of the person whose head you are holding under the water…

This little mental exercise has been around long enough for many readers to recognize it. Still, it illustrates two things that you can do to deal with stress.

First, explore mental imaging. Practice mentally placing yourself into a more agreeable environment. Second, never underestimate the importance of retaining your sense of humor.

Other coping mechanisms that you should consider include:
• Asking for help. Don’t be too prideful to consult a good self-help book, a therapist, a life coach, or just a dependable mentor who can double as a sounding board.

• Celebrate your little victories. “No one ever taught me that it was OK to have personal goals,” Dr. Reese says. “And yet if you read people such as Anthony Robbins and Wayne Dyer, you recognize that one of the points that they really drive home is the importance of achieving things, not at a professional level, but at a personal one. The rewards will follow.”

• Appreciate the good things about your job. Reese recommends that officers develop a sense of gratitude within themselves, gratitude for the job, that is.

• Drop some of your own unreasonable expectations about the job.

• Realize that you can’t save everybody. Reese uses the example of an officer who is constantly called to a domestic at the same address and becomes frustrated with the situation. “Quit taking things so personally,” he advises. “It helps to recognize that if psychologists and family counselors cannot [affect the situation] within the context of hours and hours of counseling, there’s going to be damned little that you can do to impact a dysfunctional dynamic.”

• Manage your time effectively. By not squandering time on peripheral pursuits or things external to your department’s mission, you will be better able to complete tasks in a more timely manner, thereby lessening stress and anxiety for yourself, your supervisors, your coworkers, and everyone involved except for the third-strike suspect that you collar.

• If you can’t realize the ideal, idealize the real. The process of tricking yourself might strike most officers as counterintuitive, but Reese sees it as a realistic concession to a disagreeable reality. It is fine to recognize the inequities of life. People will always be promoted or transferred for reasons that are not germane to the performance of the job. Favoritism, nepotism, sexism, all these factors have always been there and always will be. It is important to do something that you love to the best of your ability, regardless of what anybody by any objective standard would recognize as a lack of parity and outcome.

Reese knows that for many officers the job is either a passion or a pension. He hopes that those who might be feeling burned out will seek and obtain the help that they obviously need. If not, he hopes that they will at least recognize the need to get out of the job.

“Carrying a firearm and not caring is unethical,” he argues. “Give that gun and badge to someone else who wants them…and can be trusted with them.” 

Dean Scoville is a patrol supervisor with the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department and a contributing editor to Police.

Burnout Potential Inventory
On her Website (, Dr. Beverly Potter identifies the following conditions on the job as likely to result in career burnout, even if the individual was once dedicated:

• Powerlessness
• No Information
• Conflict
• Poor Teamwork
• Overload
• Boredom
• Poor Feedback
• Punishment
• Alienation
• Ambiguity
• Unrewarding
• Values Conflict

About the Author
Author Dean Scoville Headshot
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