Police officers, and others in the public sector, often care deeply about what they do. But pressure is growing and stress is rising. Buddhist-inspired emotional intelligence can speak to these difficulties
The president of the Police Superintendents’ Association tells us the police are facing a perfect storm of rising crime and decreasing resources. And part of the cost is the endemic anxiety, stress and depression that many police officers are experiencing. This resonated for me with the work I do with teachers, healthcare professionals and prison and probation staff, and the pressures they describe.
The most rewarding part is seeing the commitment and kindness of the nurse who spends her days telling people, with compassion and clarity, that they’ll soon die of lung cancer. Prisons are harsh environments, but there, too, I find the same qualities in the woman who spends long hours talking to prisoners on suicide watch.
Public services can’t function without that commitment; we take it for granted at our peril; and too many people tell me that, for many reasons, they’re gradually being worn down. Altruism can itself be part of the problem if people become so focused on helping others that they ignore their own stress. And in the police and prison services there can be a misguided belief that ‘resilience’ means picking yourself up after something like a violent incident and getting on with the job. The problem is that stress doesn’t go away just because you avoid it; eventually it takes its toll. In that sense, acknowledging police officers’ emotional struggles is a helpful step.
The inner domain of thoughts and feelings is alien territory for many of us, but it’s where the seeds of stress, anxiety and depression are sown. I find myself in these settings because of the growing recognition of the relevance of the contemplative practices that Buddhists and others have long employed.
Meditation may not be for everyone, but I’ve come to believe that what’s sometimes called ’emotional intelligence’ is relevant in even the most macho environments. Knowing what you’re feeling means slowing down enough to experience it; and then finding the resources to accept those feelings, even if they’re painful.
When I meet struggling professionals I sometimes think of The Buddha’s last words, which can be translated as ‘Tread the path with care.’ Those professionals do care – deeply. But care in the Buddha’s sense is a multisided attitude. It warns us to take care, because we’re easily caught in unhelpful states of mind, get distracted from what’s important and forget the real sources of our happiness. And it asks us to care, and never stop caring, both for other people and for ourselves.