(photo by GRC/RCMP via flickr)

Study of RCMP officers shows importance of empathy, good relationships at work

Peers and supervisors can reduce workplace anxiety, researchers say

Police officers deal with death, violent offenders, victims of abuse and devastating crime scenes – sometimes under intense public scrutiny or even suspicion.

It's a high-stress environment that can cause debilitating workplace anxiety, University of Toronto research shows. 

And that anxiety can cause high levels of emotional exhaustion that directly lead to lower job performance, according to a new study of RCMP officers by U of T Scarborough management professors Julie McCarthy and John Trougakos and Bonnie Cheng from Hong Kong Polytechnic University.

But the study, which involved surveying 267 RCMP officers from across Canada, also found that the quality of relationships officers have with their peers and supervisors can help reduce the potentially harmful effects of workplace anxiety. 

“Police officers, like all of us, have a finite amount of resources they can draw on to cope with the demands of their job,” said McCarthy, an expert on work-life integration and stress management. “If these resources are depleted then high levels of workplace anxiety will lead to emotional exhaustion and this will ultimately affect job performance.” 

Supervisors and co-workers who are empathetic and provide emotional support by listening to their peers go a long way in fostering a positive work environment, McCarthy said. These kinds of strong interpersonal relations are built on high levels of understanding and trust, which allows individual needs to be met.

“Our findings highlight the importance of programs that allow employees to recover, build resilience and develop strong social support networks in the workplace.” 

Statistics about anxiety in the modern workplace are alarming, McCarthy said, with one survey showing 41 per cent of employees from a range of industries reporting high levels of anxiety in the workplace. She added it's important to have strong social support networks not only in high-stress occupations but in any line of work. 

“Organizations like the RCMP have taken great strides in developing techniques to buffer the effects of anxiety among their officers,” McCarthy said. “Our hope is that this research will trigger conversations among other organizations about the debilitating effects of a stressed-out workplace and the importance of developing strategies to help workers cope with workplace anxiety.”  

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