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

New research by UTSC management professor Julie McCarthy explored how workplace anxiety can lead to lower job performance by studying RCMP officers.

It’s no secret that police officers work in high stress environments.

Not only do they confront violent offenders, crime scenes, accident victims as well as victims of abuse and death, they can also experience immense public suspicion and scrutiny.

According to a new study by U of T Scarborough and Rotman School of Management professors Julie McCarthy and John Trougakos exploring the effects of workplace anxiety among RCMP officers, the high levels of emotional exhaustion can lead to lower job performance. 

“Workplace anxiety is a serious concern not only for employee health and well-being, but also for an organization’s bottom-line,” says Trougakos, an expert on organizational behaviour.

McCarthy and Trougakos, along with Bonnie Cheng from Hong Kong Polytechnic University, explored the effects of workplace anxiety among RCMP officers. They found the high levels of emotional exhaustion that come from workplace anxiety can directly lead to lower performance on the job.

“Police officers, like all of us, have a finite amount of resources they can draw on to cope with the demands of their job,” says 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.”

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.

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, notes McCarthy. 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,” she says.

Statistics about anxiety in the modern workplace are alarming, with one survey showing 41 per cent of employees from a range of industries reporting high levels of anxiety in the workplace. The hope, McCarthy says, is to highlight the importance of having 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,” says McCarthy.

“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.” 

The research is available online and will be published in the upcoming edition of the Journal of Applied Psychology.

© University of Toronto Scarborough