Stories From The Squad Car: Balancing the Badge

We all work, sometimes extra hours, in an effort to enjoy our lives a little more comfortably. Extra hours to make some sweet overtime, make a name for yourself, and get that long overdue and well-deserved promotion, or even set an example for your peers on what a quality work ethic looks like. But what happens when you put in so much work, that your personal life ceases to exist? This is an ever-prevalent problem in almost all professional fields, but even more so within law enforcement. We’ve all heard of it before, but what is it, and how do we obtain our own individual, “perfect” work-life balance?

police line tape
There’s a line that must be maintained between police work and home life. Just like the physical police line, crossing the line between work and home can be a recipe for disaster.

What is Work-Life Balance and Why Does it Matter?

Most commonly, the idea of work-life balance refers to a division of time, between time spent at work and time spent doing “nonwork” things. Between shifts, find things that nourish your body and soul, whether it be the activities you engage in or the people you spend time with. It looks different to everyone, and no one can tell someone exactly what their balance should look like.

In an ideal scenario, “balance” would be defined as being equal. This is not necessarily the case here. In law enforcement, the amount of time spent at work will oftentimes far outweigh the time spent on personal relationships and self-care. The idea is to maximize the quality of time even if you can’t balance the quantity.

A good balance between work and personal life can result in a longer, more fulfilling career, more deep and meaningful relationships with friends and family, and a great deal of improvement to your physical and mental health and well-being.

Dangers of Work-Life Being Out of Balance

According to recent studies, approximately 60% of all working adults report having an unbalanced life, with regard to work and home lives. 

The nature of law enforcement work tends to create a sense of isolation from anyone not living within the “emergency services bubble”.  Family tends to be a bit of an exception. However, without a proper work-life balance, those relationships too will suffer. Studies have repeatedly shown an excess of 50% of police officers will experience divorce at some point throughout their careers. Strained relationships with children, potentially extending long past their childhood, can result from being absent or not being truly present when there. In law enforcement, hyperfocus is almost a constant state. Seeing, hearing, and thinking, about all things at all times, and an inability to turn that off can exacerbate this problem even when not at work.

mental health and work-life balance
An appropriate work-life balance is critical to professionals of all backgrounds. In law enforcement, though, it’s especially important to avoid dangerous burnout, self-depreciation, and suicide.

This imbalance, not only has a negative impact on personal relationships but can also be detrimental to the mental and physical health of the individual themselves. Increasing the amount of constant stress without relief can cause increased risks of heart attack, and stroke, not to mention, depression, anxiety, and a slew of other ailments affecting not only the body but the mind as well.

This imbalance can have not only negative effects on your personal life and physical well-being but also result in burnout at work. Burnout can result in a loss of focus, which can prove to be a liability to the officer’s well-being and potentially shorten careers. It can also create problems for their department, and provide a lower quality of service to the community they are charged with protecting.

How Does Someone Find That “Perfect” Balance?

As previously stated, the “perfect” balance will look different to each individual, but each person finding their own balance is essential to their long-term professional success and personal well-being. It is also important to remember that achieving and maintaining this work-life balance requires constant evaluation and recalibration. What works for you when you are a single, young officer, will not necessarily work for you once you’ve been on the job for 20 years and have a spouse and kids at home. Find what works for you, but be willing to adjust and constantly monitor how it is working for you.

Communicate with those in your life and try to obtain a realistic understanding of what they expect from you.  Don’t be afraid to express when someone is asking for too much. Even if they are, it doesn’t mean they don’t care or are taking you for granted. No one can truly know what another person needs or can handle without clear, open communication.

One thing that is essential to all phases of a person’s career in regard to their work-life balance, is to (whenever possible) not let one bleed over into the other. Now, I am not saying one should isolate their family from work, or keep their coworkers out of their personal lives, necessarily. I simply suggest not letting one aspect of your life intrude on time spent with the other.

When you are at home, enjoying the non-work parts of your life. Be present with what you are doing and do not be consumed with thoughts of the work you have done, things you’ve experienced, or even what you want to accomplish when you return to work. Be actively focused at all times on whatever part of your life you are currently living.

The same goes for not allowing any struggles or frustrations with your personal life to bleed into your work life. As everyone reading this likely knows, the focus I referred to earlier is an essential part of being safe and effective in law enforcement. One cannot afford to be hindered by outside distractions. Now, this is not always going to be possible, we are human after all. The key is to be mindful and aware of what you are experiencing and make the appropriate adjustments.

I find that having a transition ritual is very effective for this, something that helps to “turn off” work and prepare to be home. I, for one, am a big fan of taking off your gear while you are at work so that you can walk in the door to your home, unencumbered by the physical weight of the day. Likewise, I always like to take a shower before work in an effort to start each day fresh. Make it your own and find what works for you.

police duty gear in backseat
Sometimes the lines are blurred with dirty duty gear alongside the innocence of a child’s car seat after a hard day’s work.

Work-Life Balance is a Partnership

Maintaining a work-life balance is essential, not only to the individual for their own well-being but for their professional success as well. Leaders within any department or agency have a responsibility to monitor the well-being of their employees. Open communication and a willingness to give employees what they need to maintain their physical and mental health is an essential component of people being able to maintain the work-life balance they need to continue being healthy, happy, and successful.

We, however, need to be willing to express our needs as well, in both aspects of life. We need to be clear with our employers as well as our partners and families as to what we need in order to achieve and maintain our balance. Be honest with yourself and those in your life and work together to obtain that “perfect” balance.

Carl Staas is a former Police Sergeant from West Central Missouri. He spent 17 years in law enforcement, performing routine patrol, investigations, evidence management, and finished his career as a patrol Sergeant and field training officer. He's an FBI LEEDA Trilogy recipient and tactical driving instructor. He doesn't know everything about guns, but he's always trying to learn more!

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