By: Carlos Farina, MS, MCAP, NBCCH
Help For Our Heroes Program Director

Let’s begin by asking this question: What is burnout? Burnout is a state either physical, psychological, or both in which an individual ceases to be able to function effectively. Burnout does not refer to incompetent people who don’t know how to do their jobs. It also does not mean being temporarily unhappy or frustrated from time to time.

Burnout knows no boundaries and it affects professionals and non-professionals alike. It’s progressive and if not managed properly, it may creep out of control. At highest risk are the high achievers, goal-oriented people with generally great expectations, these people are the ones who want their marriages to be the best, their work records to be outstanding, their children to be above the rest. There is also a sense of pride in their ability to master situations, but the real danger begins when no matter how great the efforts, the only result seems to be a constant frustration.

Burnout has no specific or precise pattern and behaviors often vary from one person to the next. Manifestations of symptoms are at times confusing because the officer might very well exhibit a number of them all at once. A good number of police officers experience some form of burnout symptoms, however, these symptoms are often perceived by police officials as a morale problem, or perhaps a deep sense of job dissatisfaction. Attitude changes, mood swings, and depression are just a few of the behavioral components that contribute to the process of burnout. Often, victims of burnout see themselves as unable to do much about what seems to be happening to them, as mentioned earlier, symptoms of burnout vary a great deal and it is difficult to pinpoint a precise pattern, but most serious of all is the victim’s general feeling expressed that not much can be done about burnout. Sufferers complain initially of feeling overwhelmed, frustrated, blocked by insurmountable circumstances, or simply unable to cope. Eventually, they feel drained of energy, used up, just having nothing more to give. This, in turn, gives rise to a callous cynicism, a don’t-knock-yourself-out for anyone attitude, and finally, to a sense of personal powerlessness that the situation is beyond their control which tends to become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

One way of detecting burnout is through awareness and self-recognition, being able to identify the dysfunctional behaviors just may be the best alternative. As a mental health professional, I know how devastating burnout can be. Not only does it destroy its victims psychologically and physically, but everything around them as well, like work, family, and friends.

Whose responsibility is it to prevent burnout? This question has been posed often, but the real answer is we all share some responsibility as individuals. We owe it to ourselves and our loved ones to try and do something about this problem because they will become victims if we don’t. Only you can make the ultimate difference. You can survive the job if you preserve your effectiveness, learn to provide for your needs and take positive appropriate action to avoid burning out.

Action is a result of responsibility. Focus and channel all your efforts towards a more growing and positive self, there is still much to be done in the area of educating police officers in how to adapt, prevent, and detect dysfunctional burnout symptoms.

It is critical that all of us in the law enforcement profession begin to practice positive self-image, and set workable and realistic goals for ourselves, remembering that answers do not come from the outside world but rather deep within the caverns of your feelings, emotions, and perception of our surrounding world. Practice self-awareness, self-management, and above all, self-renewal.

To find out whether you are experiencing symptoms of burnout, take the following test and BE HONEST.

Look back over the last six months. Have you seen noticing changes in yourself or in the world around you? Think of the job, the family, social situations. Allow about 30 seconds for each answer to the questions below, then assign it a number from 1 (little or no change) to 5 (a great deal of change) to designate the degree of change you perceive.

  1. Do you tire easily?
  2. Are people annoying you by telling you, “You don’t look so good lately.”
  3. Are you working harder and harder and accomplishing less and less?
  4. Are you increasingly cynical and disenchanted?
  5. Are you often invaded by a sadness you can’t explain?
  6. Are you forgetting appointments, deadlines, personal possessions?
  7. Are you increasingly irritable? More short-tempered? More disappointed in people around you?
  8. Are you seeing close friends and family members less often?
  9. Are you too busy to do even routine things like make phone calls or read reports?
  10. Are you suffering from physical complaints? (aches, pains, headaches)
  11. Do you feel disoriented when the activity of the day comes to a halt?
  12. Is joy elusive?
  13. Are you unable to laugh at a joke about yourself?
  14. Does sex seem like more trouble than it’s worth?
  15. Do you have very little to say to people?

0-25: You’re doing fine
26-35: There are things you should be watching closely
36-50: You’re a burnout candidate
51-65: You are burning out
Over 65: You are in a dangerous place, threatening to your physical and mental well-being

Now place yourself on the Burnout Scale. Keep in mind that this is merely an approximation of where you are, useful as a guide on your way to a more satisfying life. Don’t let a high total alarm you, but pay attention to it. Burnout is reversible, no matter how far along it is. If you have a high number, you should start to be more kind to yourself – the sooner the better.