Burnout in Blue: An Analysis of the Extent and Primary Predictors of Burnout Among Law Enforcement Officers in the United States

AuthorWilliam P. McCarty,Mariana Palacios,Hani Aldirawi,Stacy Dewald
Published date01 September 2019
Date01 September 2019
Subject MatterArticles
untitled Article
Police Quarterly
Burnout in Blue: An
2019, Vol. 22(3) 278–304
! The Author(s) 2019
Analysis of the Extent
Article reuse guidelines:
DOI: 10.1177/1098611119828038
and Primary Predictors
of Burnout Among Law
Enforcement Officers in
the United States
William P. McCarty1, Hani Aldirawi2,
Stacy Dewald1,#, and
Mariana Palacios1
Job-related burnout is a significant concern for researchers, law enforcement admin-
istrators, and government authorities because of its broader effects on officer health,
job performance, and service provided to the public. This topic is particularly rele-
vant amidst a variety of complex challenges and heightened scrutiny surrounding law
enforcement officers, their decisions, and relations with the public. Although much
work has been conducted on burnout among police officers, the aim of this study is
to build on the literature through analyzing survey data from roughly 13,000 sworn
respondents representing 89 agencies throughout the United States to describe the
extent of two components of burnout—emotional exhaustion and depersonaliza-
tion. Then, based on Leiter and Maslach’s (2004) six areas of worklife, this study uses
multivariate analysis to identify the primary predictors of those two components of
burnout and how they are shaped by the characteristics of the agencies and com-
munities in which these officers work. The analysis indicates approximately 19% of
1Department of Criminology, Law and Justice, University of Illinois at Chicago, IL, USA
2Department of Mathematics, Statistics, and Computer Science, University of Illinois at Chicago, IL, USA
#Third and fourth authors are listed in alphabetical order, and both contributed equally to this work.
Corresponding Author:
William P. McCarty, Department of Criminology, Law and Justice, University of Illinois at Chicago, 1007 W.
Harrison St. (M/C 141), Chicago, IL 60607, USA.
Email: mccartyw@uic.edu

McCarty et al.
the total sample was experiencing severe levels of emotional exhaustion and 13% had
extreme values of depersonalization. In addition, regression analyses suggest that
specific measures of workload and values were the strongest predictors of emotional
exhaustion, while depersonalization was driven by similar factors in addition to a
measure of community that tapped into relations with the public. Furthermore, little
empirical support was found for the importance of agency and community-level
variables as predictors of either component of burnout. A discussion of how to
translate those results into efforts to mitigate burnout is also presented.
police, burnout, stress, law enforcement
In a recent edition of The Police Chief, the President of the International
Association of Chiefs of Police, Donald W. De Lucca (2017), highlighted the
myriad challenges police officers face in rising to higher standards of perfor-
mance, crime prevention, and community engagement and how those demands
can affect the emotional, physical, and mental well-being of sworn personnel in
the United States. In particular, those greater demands and scrutiny increase the
likelihood that officers experience job-related burnout, a condition that can
affect adversely physical health, the functioning of the organization, and even
the quality of service provided to the public (Schaible & Six, 2016). In light of its
serious consequences, burnout has been the subject of numerous studies in
policing, with many of those works being single-agency examinations of its
correlates ( Schaible & Gecas, 2010) or how it varies between different groups
of law enforcement personnel (McCarty & Skogan, 2013) or as a function of
officer demographics (Padyab, Backteman-Erlanson, & Brulin, 2016).
While those studies have added considerably to the existing knowledge of
burnout in policing, this study seeks to build on the literature with the following
goals. First, the study uses survey data collected from a national sample of over
13,000 sworn officers representing 89 agencies throughout the United States to
describe the extent of two central components of burnout, emotional exhaustion
and depersonalization (Schaufeli & Taris, 2005). Second, framed by Leiter and
Maslach’s (2004) six areas of worklife, the study uses multivariate analysis to
identify the strongest correlates of those two components of burnout, respec-
tively, among this sample of police personnel. Finally, recognizing that law
enforcement is primarily a local orientation in the United States, with great
variation in the structure and environment in which departments are situated,

Police Quarterly 22(3)
the study explores how the two components of burnout are affected by the
broader agency- and community-level characteristics in which these officers
work. This study’s pursuit of those goals will contribute to a more thorough
understanding of burnout while also serving as a broader call to policing schol-
ars to focus on the human resources issues that are of critical importance to law
enforcement leaders throughout the country. As De Lucca (2017) argued,
expectations that officers rise to the heightened challenges they face in the
status quo amidst great scrutiny cannot be met when they are emotionally,
physically, or mentally unwell. As such, the results here will allow the ability
to tailor specific initiatives to officers who are experiencing burnout or types of
agencies where this condition is most likely to manifest.
An Overview of Burnout and its Implications
Burnout is a form of enduring psychological strain that entails exhaustion from
and diminished interest in work (Xanthopoulou & Meier, 2014). Often confused
with its antecedent, work-related stress, burnout is a condition that can result
from prolonged exposure to stressors that exceed the individual’s resources to
cope (Cooper, Dewe, & O’Driscoll, 2001). While burnout affects employees in a
variety of different work contexts, it can be especially pronounced in the human
services professions, such as health care, social work, and law enforcement
(Bradley, 1969; Maslach, 1982). Employees in those professions face constant
demands from the public they serve, a lack of reciprocity in their working
relationships, and inadequate resources to mitigate those challenges (Buunk &
Schaufeli, 1993), factors that are especially pronounced today in American
policing. Over time, those frustrations can lead to employees becoming more
burned out, which manifests in heightened feelings of emotional exhaustion,
depersonalization (i.e., detachment from the public they serve), and diminished
feelings of personal accomplishment in their work (Leiter, Bakker, &
Maslach, 2014).
The implications of burnout are multifaceted and serious for both the indi-
vidual and the work organization. As far as individual effects, studies using
samples of entire working populations and independent sources of health infor-
mation have found burnout to be related to depressive disorders (Ahola et al.,
2005), anxiety disorders (Ahola, 2007), and alcohol dependence (Ahola, 2007).
Furthermore, high levels of burnout were related to musculoskeletal and car-
diovascular disorders (Honkonen et al., 2006; Toker, Melamed, Berliner,
Zeltser, & Shapira, 2012). As for the work organization, high levels of burnout
were related to employee absences from work (Honkonen et al., 2006). Given
these myriad implications, it is not surprising that researchers like Leiter et al.
(2014) have labeled burnout as a major career crisis of the 21st century and a
fundamental challenge of working life.

McCarty et al.
Study Framework
Given those troubling implications, a large body of literature has explored burn-
out using frameworks like the conservation of resources theory (Hobfoll, 1989)
and the job demands-resources model (Demerouti, Bakker, Nachreiner, &
Schaufeli, 2001) to describe and explain the general conditions under which
individuals come to experience this unmitigated stress condition. This study
draws upon Leiter and Maslach’s (2004) six areas of worklife, which have
been found to have strong empirical support as predictors of this condition.
The first area, workload, entails job demands exceeding human limits or when
employees have too much to do in too little time. Control is the second area and
involves the level of autonomy, access to resources, influence over decisions, and
exposure to unambiguous demands that employees experience in their work
environments. Rewards, the third area, can be monetary, social, or intrinsic
and reflect the power of reinforcements to shape behavior. Community, the
fourth area, encompasses social support and a lack of interpersonal conflict
on the job. Fifth, feelings of fairness involve employees being treated with
respect or at least believing an equitable process is in place to guide promotions,
decisions, and discipline in the organization. Finally, a broader sense of values
reflects the power of job goals and expectations and the extent to which the
realities of the job align with the ideals and motivations that originally attracted
employees to their work.
Burnout Among Law Enforcement Officers
Either implicitly or explicitly, researchers have applied those frameworks to
studies of burnout among police officers, producing a growing body of literature
through which much can be learned. For example, scholars have established
how and why the policing occupation and law enforcement agency simulta-
neously produce the types of demands, inadequate resources, and negative
elements of worklife that...

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