Recognizing the True Cost of Low Morale
The following article was published in the Sept. 2012 edition of Police Chief Magazine (the official magazine of the International Association of Chiefs of Police) and is reprinted here with permission.
By David Cruickshank, Chief Executive Officer, Law Enforcement Research Group, New Britain, Connecticut
Dwight D. Eisenhower once said of the military, “Morale is the greatest single factor in successful wars.” The business world has also found this to be true; several studies and companies have found that when morale is up, employees are more productive, use less sick time, and are less likely to leave even if offered more money elsewhere. Many of the world’s most successful military units and Fortune 500 companies trust their success to the members of the organization. It would be reasonable to assume that for policing—paramilitary in structure and highly service oriented—morale would also be a significant factor in success. So why then are acknowledging, reviewing, and improving morale on the back burner for so many law enforcement agencies?
Fear of the Unknown
Addressing morale is similar to addressing critical incident stress and carries along with it many of the same stigmas. Roger Solomon, PhD, Auburn University, defined critical incident stress as “[a]ny situation beyond the realm of a person’s usual experience that overwhelms his or her sense of vulnerability and or lack of control over the situation.” Individuals, especially in paramilitary organizations, have a tendency to take on a macho attitude when faced with critical incident stress, associating the dealing with or preparing for such incidents as weaknesses. Some managers, while seeing the overall value of being prepared for critical incident stress, view the subject as unnecessary and too touchy-feely. Addressing morale is often viewed in the same way—managers shrug it off as unnecessary and individuals view it as a sign of weakness. Poor morale issues severely damage an agency, cost untold expenses, and hurt its ability to provide effective service to the community.
Although research on morale has evolved significantly over the years, untested opinions of morale still outnumber the amount of peer-reviewed research studies. Almost all of the early research in this field focused on operational stress that officers face. Initially, it was widely believed that officer stress and morale were based on the premise that law enforcement professionals are placed in continuously difficult situations and are required to deal with these situations in the course of their duties. This is known as operational stress. While it is true that operational stress is inherent in policing, a serendipitous discovery during a critical incident stress study found that law enforcement professionals handle these operational stresses surprisingly well. This is coupled with current beliefs that, although law enforcement professionals are exposed to these negative situations, they are not exposed as frequently as previously believed.
In the early 1980s, the focus of law enforcement research in this area shifted from operational stress to organizational stress. Organizational stress refers to the stress placed on an individual from within one’s own organization. Not surprisingly, this was found to be far more significant in job satisfaction and morale. Unfortunately, the research on job stress, turnover, and morale mainly was conducted in large metropolitan agencies with the hope that it would apply as well to smaller agencies. While some of the data are useful, there remains a large gap in morale research because 95 percent of agencies in the United States employ fewer than 100 officers. Many organizational differences exist between agencies with 40 officers as compared to agencies with 400.
Organizational stress, as opposed to operational stress, was shown to be a main cause of stress and morale issues among law enforcement professionals. One study by Neal Trautman, PhD, National Institute of Ethics, surveyed more than 2,500 officers and reported that “the findings reveal the majority of the 10 greatest sources of anger and frustration among officers have a crucial common denominator, their administrators. The overall greatest source of bad morale is the perception of favoritism committed by administrators.” The study also reported many other organizational issues that directly impact morale—for example, poor communication, unfair and inconsistent discipline, and supervisory politics.
For the command staff of an agency, certain stigmas exist that interfere with looking at or improving morale. Top administrators are generally in the twilight of their careers and are therefore hesitant to institute change. Senior law enforcement professionals have worked their entire careers to advance and are unlikely to risk failure or admit that there are issues within their agencies after coming so far. Accordingly, they keep to the ways they know—the same ways that got them to where they are. Just as with critical incident stress, some individuals believe that acknowledging that morale can be improved is the same as admitting defeat or accepting blame.
One of the largest hurdles for a law enforcement executive to overcome is to understand that working to address morale is not a personal attack on one’s leadership ability. Top police executives have a respectful fear of the unknown, a keen sense of liability, and an ever-present political view of their own image. Investigating the causes of low morale, its impacts, and corrective solutions within an agency is usually enough to cause leadership of an organization to decide it is not worth the potential scrutiny. This has been the case for many in law enforcement for years, but the recent perspectives on the true cost of low morale along with the benefits of improvement are too much to ignore.
Real Impacts of Low Morale
Organizational stress and morale issues have been researched for many years in the business world. As policing evolves into a more service-oriented profession, administrators cannot overlook the impact on the mission of the profession. There are five primary issues impacted by a morale problem.
Turnover. In 2005, Chief Dwayne Orrick of the Cordele, Georgia, Police Department highlighted some of the benefits of turnover and ways to ensure that the level of turnover does not become too high. Unexpected turnover is a two-pronged problem for an agency, which loses the value of experienced officers who know the streets, the local laws, and community, and gains deficits in these areas. A new law enforcement professional typically requires one year to fully complete training and several years before training costs are recovered. For a small agency, the cost of training coupled with the cost of the overtime created during that training year can be a staggering amount. Also important to consider, although much more difficult to assess, is the number of years that it will take a new officer to gain a working knowledge of the community and the agency.
Absenteeism. Abuse of sick time can easily turn into an unpleasant and expensive cycle. When morale is low, use of sick time increases. This causes a ripple effect as other officers become tired of working at staffing minimums and of being overloaded with work in a negative atmosphere. These officers in turn begin to take more time off, perpetuating the cycle of absenteeism and further lowering morale. Unfortunately, while there is ample software that exists to evaluate sick time abuse, very rarely is this software used to gauge whether there are morale issues. With low morale increasing sick time use, administrators need to focus on identifying the underlying problem rather than isolating and punishing abusers of sick time policies.
Low Productivity. Low morale damages community-oriented policing initiatives, numbers-driven grant programs, and overall agency case work by decreasing the quality and frequency of policing services. In law enforcement, as in the business world, satisfaction with supervisors develops employees who are more productive and produce better work. An unhappy officer, on the other hand, shrugs off responsibilities, does the bare minimum, and wastes resources, leaving others to do more with less assistance. This further lowers morale and perpetuates the cycle. At the same time, when officers refuse to thoroughly investigate cases, the public’s perception of the agency suffers. This damages not only the administration over the long term but also the community. It can take years to reverse these opinions and perceptions.
Civil Liability. As morale decreases, use-of-force and civilian complaints increase. Officers with low morale have lower tolerances, may utilize poor judgment, and can exhibit negative feelings, all of which can hinder their performance of duties. Thus, many police chiefs expend a great deal of effort on reducing civil liability. Use of excessive force, sexual harassment, and false arrests are factors that can financially cripple not only an agency but also the community served.
Officer Suicide. Policing is recognized as a stressful occupation regardless of the source of the stress. The law enforcement occupation has high rates of divorce, substance abuse, and suicide. Research shows that while the numbers of suicides in law enforcement are not significantly higher than other professions, law enforcement professionals are at a higher risk. The availability of weapons, consistently dealing with death and dying, and the constant stress of the job contribute to the increased risk. There are currently no studies positively linking low morale to the increased risk of suicide; however, there is one important inference. If organizational stress rather than operational stress is found to be more significant, then it is not unreasonable to say that organizational stress plays a role in the mental health of an officer. In a healthy organization with good morale, an officer who is experiencing problems on the job or at home may be noticed earlier by supervisors when surrounded by officers who do not exhibit the same negativity. When shift morale is positive, officers more readily notice a colleague who is not dealing effectively with stress.
It would be impractical, if not impossible, for an agency to put a dollar amount to the losses incurred by these five morale issues. It suffices to say that when factoring in long-term consequences, the total would be staggering.
The Path to a Brighter Future
Regardless of the level of morale within an agency, there always is room for improvement. By the time low morale results in a breaking point, significant damage may have already occurred, which can take years to undo. Public manifestations of low morale (for example, negative press, unexpected turnover, suicide, or the termination of a chief) are obvious starting points, but such a dramatic trigger need not exist to begin improving morale. The process differs slightly for new administrations as opposed to those who have remained unchanged for a length of time.
For the New Administrator. The task of raising department morale is easier for new administrators who have little to lose and everything to gain by investigating how their departments operate and where stressors exist. If done well, bringing in outside evaluators or conducting anonymous surveys within an agency can improve morale simply by giving officers a chance to voice their opinions and open lines of communication. Lack of communication is known in numerous business and law enforcement studies to be a significant source of stress. Talking with a cross section of officers—if not all officers—is an excellent way to promote openness and increase communication. The single most important thing a new administrator can learn is what did not work with the previous administration. Organizational weaknesses may be discovered in the process. A new administration offers a perfect opportunity to institute changes supported by the rank and file.
For the Existing Administrator. Correcting morale issues can be difficult for administrators because these leaders must overcome suspicions while contemplating the motives of others. Dramatic changes in the way an agency operates are rarely necessary and may create more problems. Similarly, the blind approach of mandating leadership courses for supervisors is only marginally effective if underlying problems are not identified. Evaluation of the level of morale must begin the discovery process regarding the issues affecting agencies. Many simple techniques that have worked in the business environment such as steering committees, leadership programs, and true open-door policies can work for policing if administrators are open to improving working conditions. Morale will improve if lines of communication are established and positive steps taken to correct the issues that arise.
Administrators need to ask themselves what legacies and lasting impressions are important to the communities and the agencies they serve. Reducing organizational stress, thereby improving morale, is a positive legacy. Recognizing and working to correct organizational problems and improving morale should be a goal of every administrator because of the potential impacts on communities and law enforcement professionals. Building morale must be an ongoing process: the first step is recognition of the problem, followed by legitimate work toward improvement. The long-lasting, positive effects will lead to healthy professionals taking greater pride in the communities they serve, resulting in win-win outcomes.
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Please cite as: David Cruickshank, “Recognizing the True Cost of Low Morale,” The Police Chief 79 (September 2012): 26–30.
Reprinted from Police Chief Magazine, Vol.LXXIX, No.9, 2012 Copyright held by the International Association of Chiefs of Police, Inc., 515 N. Washington Street, Alexandria, VA 22314. Further reproduction without the express permission from IACP is strictly prohibited