TORONTO - They may be in the business of serving and protecting the public, but a new study suggests Canada's police officers are having a much harder time looking out for themselves.
The strain of ever-changing hours, the demands of on and off-hour job duties and the rigours of an intolerant corporate culture are reeking havoc with officers' work-life balance, according to researchers at Carleton University and Western University.
The survey of 4,500 officers across 25 police boards found physical health, family relationships and emotional well-being all suffered over the course of a typical law enforcement career.
Their comparatively high paycheques, the study suggested, do little to compensate for the stress that results from a life spent working long hours on rotating shifts while trying to juggle family responsibilities.
Study co-author Linda Duxbury, a business professor at Carleton University, said the survey reached some alarming conclusions about the state of the country's police community.
"These people are putting their life on the line, not just by putting themselves in an endangered state, but also working themselves so hard that they're hurting their physical and mental health," Duxbury said in a telephone interview.
An average police officer works a considerably longer week than most Canadians, Duxbury said, adding survey results showed an average work week of 53.5 hours.
Much of that time is clocked on rotating shifts that eat into an officer's personal time and undermine healthy routines, she added.
Days off are often sacrificed to the court system, which demands an officer be present on off-duty time, she said. Further pressure comes from the fact that officers are expected to become active volunteers in their home communities.
Such expectations take a toll. One fifth of the survey respondents described their physical health as poorer than other people of the same age and gender, a finding Duxbury described as significant when applied to a population dominated by men under 45.
Mental health was also a rising concern, the study noted. Two thirds of officers reported missing at least 14 days of work during a year, often citing stress.
Such stress often spills over into family life, prompting some officers to sacrifice the amount of time they spend with loved ones or even decide to shy away from additional responsibilities such as children, the survey found.
Duxbury said these pressures were starkly illustrated by responses from female survey participants. Only one per cent of women had a partner at home full time compared to 12 per cent of men, and females at all ranks were more likely to be single or divorced.
The study also identified career mobility and coaching as pressing issues weighing on the country's police force.
Overworked officers who are forced to take on more responsibilities as governments tighten the purse strings on law enforcement funding have less time to diversify their skills or mentor new staff members, Duxbury said.
All these factors raise red flags for future recruitment efforts and initiatives to retain existing officers. Duxbury said the fact that 91 per cent of respondents earn paycheques of at least $80,000 is not enough to offset the accumulated challenges of the job.
Police forces must revamp their management strategies if they hope to hang onto the staff they have and attract the right candidates in the years ahead, Duxbury said, adding the current system simply isn't sustainable.
"It's not the operational stuff. A lot of them go into the job expecting the stresses associated with that sort of thing," she said.
"What they're not expecting is to serve 50 masters, doing 50 high-priority tasks, many of which have life and death consequences for people, all at exactly the same time."
Carol Allison-Burra, president of the Canadian Association of Police Boards, said the call to action has not fallen on deaf ears.
The data sheds light on some pervasive prejudices imbedded in police culture, she said, adding forces would be well-advised to make work-life balance more of a priority.
Physical and emotional stability is particularly key for a workforce that consistently grapples with the darker side of life, she said.
"A lot of these things can have reverberations because of how we live in the system," Allison-Burra said. "I really want them taking care of their own mental health."