From a health standpoint, the lifestyles of most folks in law enforcement could be considered criminal, or at the very least a ticket to a very high fine. High stress levels combined with poor eating and too much sitting can lead to a host of mental and physical health problems, not to mention early retirement and, in some cases, suicide and early death. No matter how hale and hearty a police officer may be, spending hours in a patrol car, putting themselves repeatedly in danger, and candy, smoking and coffee can add up.
The Benicia Police Department is part of a new trend to encourage officers, dispatchers and other police employees to make wellness, good nutrition and exercise part of their daily regimen, Police Chief Erik Upson said. “There are many health issues associated with the work we do. There’s the stress of shift work (12-hour shifts) and the physical stress of the job, and that doesn’t just go for our police officers, but our dispatchers, too. They say sitting is the new smoking, and dispatchers spend their whole shift sitting. In my career I’ve seen the damages all that has caused,” he said. Police officers also have higher rates of sleep problems, and can experience Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), and high rates of depression and suicide, he added.Upson’s observations and anecdotal findings from his years in law enforcement are born out in a rigorous five-year study the University of Buffalo undertook of 100 police officers. The study found the daily psychological stresses officers face puts them at significantly higher risk than the general population for cardiovascular disease and other chronic health issues that results in an increase of metabolic syndrome. The latter is a cluster of symptoms that include abdominal obesity, hypertension, diabetes, high triglycerides and low levels of “good” cholesterol, according to a university announcement.
Study authors recommend changes in officer training and a shift in the cop culture that looks down on police officers who seek help for health issues. Upson regularly runs 10K races (including the recent annual Benicia Education Foundation Run for Education 10K) and has taken strides to institute wellness in his own life. He now wants to spread that to his department. Six months ago he launched a wellness program with steps still to be rolled out. He hired consultant Tim Kaplan, a former police officer, to advise on aerobic exercises and other movement police employees can take to strengthen their core and prevent injuries. Treadmills and other equipment were brought in to allow dispatchers to stand up and move around during their shifts, he said. In addition, Kaplan has also led group workshops and is available to give employees advice on incorporating exercises outside of work. Encouraging good nutrition is the next step, including healthy snacks in the break room and an option for employees to get nutritious meals delivered at their own expense. Down the line, Upson would like to help employees with mental and emotional health with additional support groups and counseling, plus relaxation techniques, yoga, and meditation.
Besides fostering good health, the wellness program is also beneficial on the business side, Upson said. For every dollar that is spent on the program at least three dollars are saved in sickness and lost time on the job. Other research shows that similar wellness programs lead to boosts in beneficial exercise and overall fitness, and declines in cigarette smoking, obesity and high blood pressure. Upson is hoping that the 55 employees in his charge, including 33 police officers, reap similar rewards by cutting down on stress and unhealthy habits. “It just makes good sense to care about your employees,” he said.