Stress, burnout among police in Canada ‘pretty terrifying,’ researcher says

Experts say police officers across Canada are feeling overloaded, stressed and burned out, prompting a renewed push from the Canadian Police Association (CPA) for “systemic, structural changes” it hopes will improve the culture of policing.

To better understand these issues, the CPA participated in a study that surveyed more than 1,000 officers across Canada. The survey says 35 per cent of them went to work when mentally unwell, while 31 per cent did so when physically ill, which is known as presenteeism. 

“If you look at the stress and the burnout levels, they’re pretty terrifying because we expect these officers to be resilient and ready, and to be able to deliver under very difficult circumstances,” said Linda Duxbury, a professor in management and strategy at Carleton University. She conducted the survey as a part of a larger research project.

Some of the biggest stressors identified among constables, sergeants and staff sergeants were related to increased workloads, reduced staffing levels and an “organizational culture that places a high premium” to prioritize work over family, the study says.

“Presenteeism actually is hugely damaging to an organization and to an individual,” Duxbury said.

“And in fact, what shocked me is how many officers show up to work when they’re mentally or physically unwell. They should not be there, but they show up. Why? Because the culture would be very judgy on them if they don’t show up.”

Carleton University professor Linda Duxbury conducted a survey for the Canadian Police Association on officer wellbeing across Canada. (CBC)

The survey, which was internally released to the CPA in May 2021, was recently obtained by CBC News.

Officers answered the survey questions during the second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic between October and December 2020. The report says the responses highlighted a policing culture where officers may be reluctant to ask for help or say no to additional work even if they’re already overloaded.

‘Either we expect to much of them or there’s not enough of them,’ says one Ontario researcher about systemic issues in policing

Carleton University professor and researcher Linda Duxbury said there are a number of systemic issues within policing that make it difficult for officers to do their jobes.

Systemic problems affect the community

Tom Stamatakis, president of the CPA, said he’s heard these issues from police services across the country.

“The current model is not sustainable. We’re asking people to do way too much, which is undermining their health, which I think does affect overall community safety and public safety,” he said. 

“I don’t think it’s as bad as it is now.”

“People don’t want to be police officers anymore. The job is becoming one that is seen to be impossible to deliver.”​​​​​​– Linda Duxbury

Stamatakis said officer fatigue could affect productivity and performance when interacting with the public in difficult circumstances.

“Are you going to be able to manage that situation calmly, or is the situation going to escalate because you’re fatigued and maybe not as patient as you should be?” said Stamatakis.

Tom Stamatakis, president of the Canadian Police Association, said police boards and funding authorities need to do more to address systemic issues within policing. (Mike Zimmer/CBC)

Generally, he said police are happy with the work they do and feel they’re making a difference.

Policing in Canada faced with ‘big issues’ and nobody is tackling them in a ‘meaningful way,’ says the Canadian Police Association

Canadian Police Association president Tom Stamatakis said the current model of policing in Canada ‘is not sustainable.’

Duxbury said her research found people become police officers because “they care about the community and they want to give back.”

“But it’s impossible to give to everybody all the time,” she said, referencing an officer’s competing priorities and increased workload.

‘We have tried to be everything to everyone’

As former police chief of the Waterloo Regional Police Service, Bryan Larkin said he’s seen the sector change dramatically. Larkin, who’s currently president of the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police, said there’s “an interesting storm within policing” when you think of all of the changes and challenges.

Role of police in Canada needs to be re-defined, says Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police

‘We tried to be everything to everyone’ and president of the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police Bryan Larkin said that isn’t working anymore in Canadian policing.

When it comes to officers being overloaded, Larkin said he’s part of the problem, but also the solution.

“As police leaders, collectively, we need to work toward … getting back to our core business. We have tried to be everything to everyone. There was never any ill intent there. It was actually well intended,” said Larkin.

Recruitment is challenging in policing

Dennis Miller is an RCMP officer and vice-president of the National Police Federation, which represents nearly 20,000 Mounties across Canada. He said he’s noticed fewer people choosing policing as a career, which is creating resource gaps.

“Policing is facing a crisis in resourcing and having applicants and people apply to do the job,” said Miller.

Funding to hire more police is one part of the problems, he said, but a “diminished appetite” to become an officer is also playing a big role.

Duxbury agreed recruitment has been an issue. She said policing can sometimes be considered a less desirable career path compared to previous years.

“People don’t want to be police officers anymore. The job is becoming one that is seen to be impossible to deliver,” she said.

She also said police leadership needs to be pushing politicians, who hold the purse strings, for increased hiring and telling them the status quo is “unfair.”

“That’s not happening,” Duxbury said, adding that policing has become more politicized in recent years.

“The well-being of police would be addressed by hiring more officers or giving people permission to say no,” she said. But she said that can only happen if senior officers lead by example.

Lots of talk about changing policing with little change, experts say

Part of the solution, she said, is finding the right balance and re-evaluating the priorities of police. For example, officers are responding to an increasing number of calls about mental health, social and homelessness issues.

WATCH | OPP Commissioner Thomas Carrique talks about changes the organization has made to help reduce officer stress:

OPP commissioner outlines changes organization has made to address officers being overwhelmed

OPP Commissioner Thomas Carrique outlines a number of changes the organization has made to address officers being overwhelmed on the job.

Ultimately, both Duxbury and Stamatakis said there’s a lot of talk from police leaders, oversight boards and politicians to change the culture, but very little is actually being done to address the issues.

“These are big issues and I’m not seeing, unfortunately, any order of government … really tackling these issues in a meaningful way,” Stamatakis said.

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