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Developing Resilience in Public Safety: Part Two

Developing Resilience in Public Safety: Part Two

This article is Part Two of our Two-Part series on Developing Resilience in Public Safety, co-authored and in partnership with the Hecht Trauma Institute. Read Part One: Mental Health here.

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Organizational culture is a hot button topic for corporate thought leaders and professional sports organizations around the world. But why is organizational culture influential? 

In part one, we referenced Jessica Dockstader, a member of the Mental Health Committee at the International Public Safety Association (IPSA). In her work, Dockstader highlights a 2010 study that demonstrates that “organizational stressors have an equal or greater impact on law enforcement officers than critical incidents.” 

“Organizational stressors have an equal or greater impact on law enforcement officers than critical incidents.” 

This means that a poor agency culture can be as damaging, if not more so, in some instances, than the trauma that a given traumatic incident might cause. If that is the case, establishing a good culture is essential for the sake of each public safety professional.

Building Good Culture

So what is a “good” culture?

To answer that question, we must consider the context of this discussion. As it relates to public safety professionals, a good culture focuses on and promotes the building of resilience within individuals and groups. Additionally, it has a specific focus on mental health and individual well-being.

Shawn Hill, a police lieutenant and professor at Santa Barbara City College, co-authored research in May of 2019 with Howard Giles, professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara, titled “Resilience as a Department Cultural Initiative.” The piece suggests that "there is a consensus around the notion that resilience is the ability to effectively and calmly master and transcend adverse circumstances and devastating losses,” and “evidence suggests that much of people’s ability to rebound, and even thrive, relies on their social relationships.”

“Evidence suggests that much of people’s ability to rebound, and even thrive, relies on their social relationships.”

Not only is resilience an essential tenet of effective public safety agencies, it can be improved by improving culture. According to Hill and Miles, the most critical aspects of establishing a resilience-breeding culture are:

  1. Credible leaders that communicate effectively
  2. Proper organizational perspective
  3. Setting workable yet flexible goals
  4. Shared understanding between leadership and line-level personnel
  5. Mutual support between peers and leaders

Our key takeaway is: effective and resilient public safety agencies operate in a manner that is similar to elite sporting organizations. Teamwork, communication, and servant-leadership are emphasized while the larger goal, public safety, informs the team’s perspective and goal setting.

Take action: lead by example

The impetus to set the standard is on those at the top of the leadership structure. Police Chiefs, Sheriffs, Directors, Administrators, and other leaders at various levels of the chain of command must work to promote good culture. This process facilitates a self-reinforcing feedback loop, whereby the individual’s gain aids the collective and vice versa.

As public servants, members of the public safety community are charged with safeguarding the public and building public trust. To be successful in this regard, they must be balanced, professional, and thoughtful in their approach. To this end, those who have well-developed physical, mental, and emotional stress management skills and coping mechanisms are better prepared to carry out the mission. 

As the individual’s resilience increases, so does the collective. It then becomes increasingly difficult to harm the collective externally and the collective, the public safety agency, becomes more resilient to more significant challenges.

Conclusion: Developing Resilience in Public Safety

COVID-19 arrived from nowhere and brought non-resilient systems to their knees. The next large-scale catastrophe may not be a pandemic. It could be an overwhelming number of extreme weather events or a breakdown in cybersecurity. Supply chain issues could rear their ugly head in the public safety world and affect the availability of technology. Maybe we don’t even know the next threat.

Developing resilience is essential to mitigate these uncertainties. Further, by viewing individual resilience as a team-developed concept, we can see how each strengthens the other. It is vitally important that public safety agencies nationwide begin, or continue, to put these practices in place.

Public safety leaders can set an example at the top. Making mental health a priority will drastically improve individual wellness and resilience while also helping create a positive and trauma-informed agency culture.

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