Assessing the Impact of Shift Work and Stress on the Psychological and Physiological Wellbeing of Police Officers

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ABSTRACT

The primary aim of this article is to assess the impact of a high stress shift work occupation (i.e., police work) on psychological (i.e., cognitive and somatic anxiety) and physiological (i.e., chronic fatigue, digestive and cardiovascular symptoms) wellbeing. Specifically, this study seeks to assess the impact of age on psychological and physiological wellbeing as well as to assess the mediating impact of adverse (disengagement) and beneficial (engagement) coping strategies on psychological and physiological wellbeing.

One hundred and twenty-nine subjects from two Police Local Area Commands in Eastern Australia completed a modified version of the Standard Shiftwork Index (SSI). It was hypothesized that age and disengagement coping would be adversely related to psychological and physiological symptoms and that, conversely, engagement coping would be beneficially related to psychological and physiological wellbeing. Although analysis of the data supported the hypothesis that age and disengagement coping were adversely related to a variety of psychological and physiological symptoms, the results did not support the hypothesis that engagement coping was beneficially related to either psychological or physiological wellbeing. These findings are discussed within the context their implications for police officer psychological and physiological wellbeing

To date, one of the most comprehensive questionnaire-based research tools used to assess the wellbeing of shift workers, and the many mediating factors impinging on shift worker wellbeing, is the Standard Shiftwork Index (SSI) designed by Barton, Spelten, Totterdell, Smith, Folkard & Costa (1995). Barton, Folkard, Smith, Spelten & Totterdell (1992) suggest that the SSI may be viewed as a set of previously standardized questionnaires that can be classified as fitting into one of two categories: (1) those examining variables that may mediate a response to shift work (e.g., age, marital status, shift system, personality variables and coping strategies) and, (2) those examining variables that measure the impact of shift work (e.g., sleep, psychological symptoms, and physical symptoms).

Previous research using the SSI indicates that age is positively correlated with a greater risk of developing a variety of psychological and physiological symptoms (Barton, et al., 1995a; Barton, et al., 1995; Costa, et al., 1995; Kaliterna & Prizmic, 1998; Ognianova & Dalbokova, 1998; Smith, et al., 2000; Tucker, et al., 1996) and increased sleep disturbance (Costa, et al., 1995; Ognianova & Dalbokova, 1998; Smith, et al., 2000). In contrast to this age-based research, several SSI studies provide mixed results regarding the influence of coping strategies on wellbeing. Coping is defined as any effort to prevent, eliminate, or reduce stressors, or to tolerate the effect of stress with minimum harm. It has been argued that, in the short term, our responses to stressors help mobilize energy resources, inhibit inflammation, and increase our resistance to infection. In the longer term chronic stress may be maladaptive to our wellbeing by eventually contributing to the development of a host of physical disorders as well as impeding our ability to mount an effective immune response (Bull, 1994). The use of negative or positive coping skills, therefore, can significantly affect our ability to moderate harmful influences to our wellbeing.

The SSI assesses the impact of two primarily cognitively based coping strategies (i.e., engagement and disengagement) with regard to four problem areas (i.e., social and domestic life, sleep and job). Engagement coping assesses the extent to which subjects utilize the following positive coping strategies: talking to someone about problems, letting emotions out, working on solving problems and reorganizing problems so that they do not look so bad. …