K-State professor studies link between gender and stress in law enforcement


Research has found that concern for maintaining a tough persona can lead to unhealthy stress management habits, which in reality only increases stress for both male and female police officers.

Don Kurtz, assistant professor of social work, studied the stress levels of male and female police officers and the methods they used to decrease stress. In his research, Kurtz took into account societal expectations of both men and women, and his findings are based off data from a study conducted in Maryland, as well as his own interviews with police officers from three different police departments.

Kurtz concluded that the culture in which police officers work, with its emphasis on appearing “macho,” limits ways for men to reduce stress because of the fear of appearing weak, while it also alienates the female police officers working in this male-dominated field. In this subculture, Kurtz found that, according to the officers, using excessive force in front of peers was seen as more respectable than crying, which was seen as mock-worthy. He said male police officers did not want to be seen as emotionally weak while female police officers did not want to be seen as physically weak.

In his study, Kurtz wrote that the nature of the job requirements, the police organizational structure and interactions with the public are the main sources of stress for police officers. Al Johnson, Riley County commissioner and former police officer, said stress is the result of continued exposure to potential danger.

“You don’t know if you are walking into a dangerous situation,” he said. “For some officers, their systems don’t return back to normal and it becomes a problem.”

Johnson said counseling is provided but, like Kurtz found in his study, it is not heavily used. Instead, Kurtz found male police officers would often tell war stories and participate in social binge drinking where their stories would, over time, become more exaggerated. Women were generally excluded from these social gatherings. For the men, though, the sharing of stories did not manage the underlying stress, Kurtz said. Female officers generally sought out friends and loved ones to help manage stress, he said.

Kurtz said jokes were also used by police officers in an attempt to decrease stress, including gender-related jokes. He said that according to one officer, emotion shown on the job would lead to constant teasing, therefore jokes were meant to bring humor to a situation.

“Jokes allow us to say things with a degree of protection,” Kurtz said. “[Jokes] can deflect anger.”

Gender-related jokes, however, were found to increase the stress for both female and male police officers. In his study, Kurtz theorized that women’s stress levels increased because the jokes were often belittling or sexually inappropriate while the jokes also potentially caused stress for men with a higher education. Kurtz argued these men, whose perceptions on gender might have been challenged by their education, were perhaps less likely to exhibit sexist attitudes but were still affected by the environment in which they worked where such jokes were commonplace.

According to research, policing is one of the most stressful professions, but these “masculinized” ways of handling stress set police officers up for failure, Kurtz said.

“It sets up a long-term ideal that they can’t live up to,” he said.

Kurtz said the male police officers he interviewed were aware of their unhealthy ways of reducing stress but felt they were powerless to present a change. He also said officers knew too much drinking was going on but the police subculture made it hard to deal with.

To combat these stresses, Kurtz suggests periodic, mandatory counseling, evening out the gender gap and an active awareness of more appropriate ways to handle stress. For Johnson, who admitted to having felt high levels of stress while working as an officer, participating in outdoor activities helped him to better manage his stress.

For both male and female police officers, families can also help decrease stress, Kurtz said. But for women, the home can be another source of stress due to household duties that must be taken care of once they leave the police station, he said.

Kurtz’s research, published in volume 3 of “Feminist Criminology,” also explores issues of race and gender in relation to stress. His work “Controlled Burn: The Gendering of Stress and Burnout in Modern Policing” can be accessed at http://tinyurl.com/c2p2et.