Effects of Trauma Work: Similarities in Tasks and Emotional Toll on Workers
Police Officers, Counselors and Clergy are Kindred Spirits
Who would think that a police officer would have anything in common with a priest? Similarly, who would ever imagine a therapist having challenges in common with those of a law enforcement officer or a priest? These are unique service professions which require very similar character traits, internal fortitude, stamina, and ethical codes of conduct.
The tolerance levels for the intense emotions they face in crisis situations exceeds that faced by those in other professions. They see and feel a lot, and at times, live inside an internal world of emotional isolation. This internal world is just an example of how police officers, counselors, and clergy mirror each other outside of the obvious differences in job duties, training, and education requirements.
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Unique Professions Defined By Crisis and Ethics
After working in the mental health field for almost three decades, closely aligned with cops and clergy, I have seen surprising similarities in police officers, counselors, and clergy, based on who they are as people and what they encounter in their respective roles. There are unexpected and intriguing overlaps in the challenges they face and to what they are exposed to on any given day as they perform their duties.
The purpose of this article is to outline those similarities and illustrate how people who take on these professions are actually more alike than different. Eleven points are discussed, covering three primary areas which include:
- Impact of job duties and function on personal life (4,6, 8,10)
- Exposure to crises, traumatic grief, loss, and death (2,5,7,9)
- Ethical and moral dilemmas faced in the profession (1,3,11)
(Scroll down to the 11 points below for details corresponding to the number noted beside primary areas above.)
Certain Trauma Workers are More Alike Than Different
Cops, counselors, and clergy may appear on the surface to be extremely different types of people. But internally and at heart, they have a lot in common.
They obviously require very different training. Their motivations for entering their respective professions are most likely divergent. However, they are more alike than different because:
- They keep a lot of secrets and personal confidences.
- They are exposed to high-intensity emotional situations and traumatic events.
- They are challenged by ethical dilemmas, personally and professionally.
- They are expected to respond to crises at any time without notice.
- They are expected to intervene, remain calm, and problem-solve with a straight face.
- They often make sacrifices in their personal care routines in order to uphold job duties and responsibilities.
- They suffer from compassion fatigue.
- Their partners, spouses, and children often feel neglected by the demands of the job.
- They are exposed to an inordinate amount of grief, loss, and death.
- They are held to higher standards and not allowed to make mistakes or fall from grace.
- They are not always comfortable with socializing in mixed company.
Similarities Among Cops, Counselors and Clergy
1. They keep a lot of secrets and personal confidences
The secrets police officers, counselors, and clergy keep can be a part of the job function or about their experiences on the job itself. Due to the nature of their jobs, they cannot readily share information or "vent" about what they hear or see. This can leave a heavy burden on the psyche with no outlet.
It is expected that they will keep the confidences of those who come to them for help, vowing to keep very sensitive information confidential. This loyalty can extend to the organization as well, where the expectation is to "never air the dirty laundry."
Typical examples of maintaining confidentiality are when the priest offers confession to the professed sinner or when the therapist provides the safety of a private office for the conflicted client to freely open up and receive support.
But, as mentioned, there are times when the secrets are about the subcultures within the profession itself. For cops, it's referred to as "The Thin Blue Line." There is a certain amount of "shop talk" among colleagues in the respective professions that is kept in-house.
However, a vast majority is kept to oneself, making for a lonely and isolating existence within a unique profession. Secrets may involve missteps, self-doubt, internal role conflicts, ethical dilemmas, or falls from high pedestals.
These are just a few examples of the unspoken challenges that create a sea of secrets kept by cops, therapists, and men and women of the cloth.
2. They are exposed to high-intensity emotional situations and traumatic events
Police officers witness the after-effects of a murder on the violent streets of an urban area; a crisis counselor may be requested to help the family deal with the reality of a violent murder of a loved one; a minister or priest may assist with a death notification at the hospital. This scenario presents an emotionally intense situation that has become the "norm" in big cities and even small towns where traumatic deaths happen regularly.
Police officers, counselors, and clergy are often exposed to traumatic events on a regular basis that culminate over time into more trauma on average than that faced by persons in 9 to 5 "crisis-free" jobs. Dealing with the intensity of human suffering is not the norm for most people but becomes the norm in these trauma work professions.
3. They are challenged with ethical dilemmas, personally and professionally
Police officers, counselors, and clergy carry out their duties within prescribed guidelines and standards. Their behaviors are dictated by codes of ethics which can create dilemmas requiring the use of judgment in making decisions.
At times, these codes and standards come into conflict with the ability to "do the right thing" or make the best or most appropriate decision.
Unique circumstances, coupled with one's own belief system, may cause a police officer or a therapist to make compromises with those respective standards.
Similarly, a priest may fall short of upholding moral and ethical codes due to personal weaknesses.
Stress Management for Cops
Codes of Conduct for Trauma Work Professionals
- Clergy: "Deacons must be likewise dignified, not double-tongued, not addicted to much wine, not greedy for dishonest gain. They must hold the mystery of the faith with a clear conscience." [1 Timothy 3:8-9 (ESV)]
- Counselors: "Professional counselors behave in an ethical and legal manner. They are aware that client welfare and trust in the profession depend on a high level of professional conduct." [American Counseling Association, 2014 Code of Ethics, Section I, Resolving Ethical Issues]
- Police Officers: "I will never betray my badge, my integrity, my character, or the public trust." [Excerpt from Law Enforcement Oath of Honor, International Chiefs of Police]
4. They are expected to respond to crises at any time without notice
Every call received by a police officer is a potential crisis. When that 911 call is dispatched, the officer doesn't always know what to expect. Special units are also on-call to respond to an emergency.
However, during the September 11th terrorist attack, every cop in every jurisdiction across the United States, responded to that crisis whether they were on duty or not. This massive and unprecedented response also included crisis response teams of counselors and chaplains whose duty it is to show up and support victims and first responders, without notice.
5. They are expected to intervene, problem-solve, and remain calm, with a straight face
Police officers, counselors, and clergy are confronted with some of the most difficult situations and are expected to fix it. Police officers often feel as if they are wearing more than one hat as mediator, social worker, and mentor as they try to solve problems in addition to enforcing the law.
Ministers often find themselves in a predicament as they are presented with marital conflict to resolve instead of imparting spiritual counsel. These situations can become emotionally charged, putting the officer, counselor, or minister in positions of keeping their emotions intact as they carry out their duties and find solutions.
6. They often make sacrifices in personal care routines in order to uphold job duties
Police officers, counselors, and clergy sacrifice a great deal of their own self-care and routines for good health maintenance in exchange for maintaining a high level of commitment to their jobs. For the most part, it's not about choice but about dedication and duty. They can fall short of getting proper nutrition, adequate sleep, and physical exercise to ensure good health and physical stamina. Being overly dedicated and obligated to the job can take its toll where these trauma professionals unknowingly sacrifice there emotional and physical health.
7. They suffer from compassion fatigue
Compassion fatigue is defined as the end result of being exposed to too much stress and trauma, internalizing it, and then developing apathy for the victims and for the work. To an extent, police officers, counselors, and clergy must keep a safe emotional distance from those they help in order to maintain objectivity and provide professional service. But when that distance is extended beyond one's ability to care and empathize, this is referred to as "burnout" or compassion fatigue.
Not all trauma work professionals suffer from this phenomenon but all are susceptible to it if they are not taking care of themselves through, breaks, vacations, training, supervision, and, if necessary, mental health counseling. Because of the direct services rendered to people in need, coupled with the emotional impact the encounters can have, police officers, counselors, and clergy, are more prone than other service workers (except maybe for emergency room personnel and EMTs) to suffer from burnout or compassion fatigue. It is vital for this special group of trauma worker professionals to step away, gain a new perspective, rejuvenate, and renew their commitment to job satisfaction and fulfillment.
8. Their partners, spouses, and children often feel neglected by the demands of the job
Family members of police officers, counselors, and clergy constantly make adjustments to feeling neglected when the job comes first in the family household. Due to the service nature of their jobs, personal and family life often revolves around the job as a priority. It is an oath, a pledge, or a vow that is taken to serve, where the family also agrees by default to make sacrifices.
It is not uncommon for a special family occasion to be missed by a police officer because of shift work. A counselor on-call will, unfortunately, have to bow out of a holiday dinner with the family to cover for the agency. And the minister of the church is always at the ready to leave the family to tend to an ill member in an emergency room. It is an expectation of the trauma worker's family that, at times, when duty calls, they are not the priority.
9. They are exposed to an inordinate amount of grief, loss, and death
Although the primary function of a police officer is to enforce the law, they usually arrive to a scene after the crime has occurred. They see the aftermath and human suffering created by violent assaults, accidents, natural disasters, and homicide. They are often the first responders to interact with distraught family members and inquisitive bystanders.
The same applies to counselors and clergy whose function it is to be there for the family who is grieving the loss of a loved one. A priest has to conduct funerals and burials for numerous decedents, some of whom he had close relationships and worked with for years. Over the course of a career, police officers, counselors, and clergy come in contact with countless instances of grief, loss, and death.
Burnout in the Trauma Professions: Compassion Fatigue
10. They are held to higher standards and not allowed to make mistakes or fall from grace
Police officers are law enforcers who are expected to be almost superhuman. They are not allowed to make mistakes in their professional roles or in their personal lives. And if they do, even if it's an honest mistake, or fall from grace, there are consequences. The same holds for counselors and clergy. Because of the public trust and high expectations we have for these unique professions, we hold officers, counselors, and clergy to much higher standards of performance and character than we do for those in other professions.
An account or store clerk can enjoy a night of bar hopping to a point of public intoxication without fear of being judged or losing his job. But a counselor's conduct is a huge part of what builds a professional reputation which translates into believability and trust. A minister's moral character is always measured by his conduct which is vital to his congregation's ability to trust him and believe in the faith he preaches.
Excessive drinking habits, DUIs, alcoholism, domestic violence, child abuse, infidelity, and drug addiction are challenges faced every day by many who fall from grace. But when these offenses are committed by those from whom we expect more impulse control, mental and emotional stability, and adherence to moral standards, it's more difficult for us to accept and forgive. It's easy to forget that they are human, too, with the same frailties and vulnerabilities as anyone else.
Stress Management for Clergy
11. They are not always comfortable with socializing in mixed company
It's sometimes difficult for police officers, counselors, and clergy to feel as if they can leave the professional roles assigned to them "at the office." Even in social situations, it is perceived that they are still in those respective roles as they are met with glances, and even questions about what they do. Because there is either a fascination with them or an avoidance of them, being in mixed company can be awkward and uncomfortable.
The ethical issue of dual relationships is a challenge that arises in the helping professions. It involves the need to maintain social distance from those with whom the helping professional has a work-related relationship. The dilemma presents itself in unexpected situations outside the environment within which the professional service is rendered.
The most common situations are social in nature wherein it is the responsibility of the professional to avoid the social setting if possible. A police officer would rather avoid a gathering where she may run into a known suspect or someone she has arrested in the past. A counselor would rather not get an update on a client's divorce when they are attending a cocktail party of a mutual friend. There are times when the opposite can occur, for example, for a priest in mixed company where others are hesitant to let their guards down for fear of offending a man of the cloth. Therefore, socializing in mixed company presents unique challenges, on several levels, to the police officer, the counselor, and to clergy.
Trauma Work Professions: Summary
The purpose of this article was to illustrate how some professions, which can look so different on the surface, can actually be more alike than different due to the nature of the job and the impact it has on the people who choose those professions. Police officers, counselors, and clergy are exposed to a lot of stress and are heavily involved in trauma work which affects their personal lives in very similar ways. During a major crisis or traumatic event, it is not uncommon for them to work in close proximity to each other as they are exposed to the same types of stress.
It is hoped that this information will expand public knowledge about and compassion for what police officers, counselors, and clergy deal with in their respective professions. Furthermore, it is hoped that these three categories of trauma work professionals will gain more understanding of and appreciation for the connections they share as kindred spirits whose mission it is to make a difference in the lives of the people they encounter in their lines of work.
For more information on the impact of trauma work, trauma survivors, post-traumatic stress, and compassion fatigue, visit Gift From Within.
[Janis Leslie Evans, M.Ed., N.C.C., L.P.C. is a licensed professional counselor in private practice in Washington, DC. Her career experiences include over 20 years of providing mental health services and critical incident stress debriefing to law enforcement officers and their families.]
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
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© 2014 Janis Leslie Evans