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Coping in high stress security occupations

02 March 2021

Understanding stress and coping strategies among security personnel in high-risk environments. Exploring the need for targeted stress management interventions.

Security personnel work in a high risk and consequently high stress environment. Any aspect of the organisation, including the physical environment, structures, roles or relationships can cause negative stress (distress). Poor communication is one of the most commonly mentioned causes of stress in organisations. Working shifts or overtime can also be a major source of stress. People who work in dangerous environments, such as the security industry, and encounter threats to their own lives as part of their work, experience even more distress. Similarly, people who may witness the death and injury of colleagues or civilians will also experience a higher level of stress.

This may negatively affect their wellbeing. If they fail to use effective coping strategies they will remain stressed, and this may have a negative impact on them, and their organisation or community. Challenges such as work stress in the South African security industry have not been comprehensively researched or documented. To identify the coping strategies used by security personnel, research was conducted as part of a doctorate degree in industrial psychology. The relationship between coping and personality were also determined.

Stress was defined as; “Any circumstances that threaten, or are perceived to threaten, a person’s wellbeing and thereby exceeds the person’s ability to cope”. “The threat may be to immediate physical safety, self-esteem, reputation, peace of mind or anything that a person values.” Work stress is consequently a mental state that can cause behavioural disorders in individuals and has become one of the greatest health issues in the modern world. Some of the stressors security personnel experience might be chronic in nature, for example, fearing for their lives as a result of high crime rates.

The safety of other people can also be affected by the stress that one person experiences. A severe outcome of stress can be suicidal tendencies or actual suicide. Research suggest that armed security guards in South Africa, as with police and military personnel, have extremely high suicide rates. Research has furthermore found that police officers who tend to use more force when apprehending suspects, consistently reported higher levels of stress. This was also evident for security personnel in the research that was conducted. 23.9% of the participants agreed that they use more force while 16.8% was undecided.

Individuals are able to use a variety of coping strategies across different situations. No strategy for coping, however, guarantees a successful outcome. The coping strategies that are likely to be effective will vary depending on the exact nature of the situation. Even the healthiest coping responses may turn out to be ineffective in some circumstances. Coping was defined as; “Any active cognitive, emotional or behavioural effort that is selectively applied in various combinations to master, reduce or tolerate the demands created by stress at the time.” The following nine healthy coping strategies, as used by security personnel, were scientifically determined:

  1. training,

  2. physical exercise,

  3. social support,

  4. group cohesion,

  5. humour,

  6. healthy sleeping habits,

  7. healthy diet,

  8. religion and

  9. relaxation.

Three unhealthy coping strategies were also determined:

  1. avoidance (the use of alcohol and medication and the transference of emotions to a substitute object),

  2. denial and

  3. social media addiction.

The results further revealed that security employees endorsed training, religion, physical exercise and relaxation the highest as their preferred coping strategies. They similarly endorsed denial and avoidance (negative loading) high, meaning that they will not deny having stress or avoid dealing with their stress.

An individual’s personality can provide an explanation of why individuals react different to stressful events and can therefore influence how a person will cope in different situations. Researchers have found that personality traits are some of the strongest predictors of a person’s wellbeing. Coping strategies have a tendency to be repeated and to become a habitual response. Such a coping style then becomes part of the individual’s personality structure. Personality was accordingly defined as; “The relatively stable and unique characteristics of an individual that determine how he or she adapts to different situations.”

The research results suggested that personality, in particular neuroticism, conscientiousness, openness to experience and agreeableness, all contributed fundamentally to the use of either avoidance, training, physical exercise, relaxation, sleep or religion as a coping strategy. Both neuroticism and avoidance had a negative correlation, thus implying that if respondents scored high on neuroticism, they would tend to make use of unhealthy coping strategies, such as taking out their anger and frustration on other people or objects, and/or using alcohol or medication to deal with their stressful circumstances. Neuroticism refers to an individuals’ emotional stability and the general tendency to experience negative feelings in response to their environment.

Conscientiousness normally relates to perseverance, responsibility and being organised. Respondents who scored high on conscientiousness could therefore maintain their physical health through regular exercise, having healthy sleeping habits and making time for themselves to relax. They would not avoid dealing with stressful situations, but also actively deal with them. Individuals could enhance their skills by attending regular training sessions and also use their religion to make sense of their circumstances.

Openness to experience involves a person’s willingness to experience new or different things. A respondent scoring high on openness to experience would not avoid dealing with stress, but rather try different approaches to deal with it. Agreeableness is the degree to which a person is able to get along with other people, and has compassion for others. Respondents who scored high on agreeableness might find comfort in their religion through interacting with other people in their congregation. They might enjoy the company of exercising with other people and find the personal interaction of training stimulating.

A concern that was identified in the research, is that there seems to be a lack of trust among security personnel. The majority of respondents (64% of the 381 participants) indicated that they did not trust their colleagues with their life, while a further 16.3% of respondents were undecided. This could have a big impact on rendering support to others when needed, especially with regards to social support. Research participants indicated that they would rather make use of friends and family for social support, than their colleagues that understand what they are experiencing on a daily basis.

It is therefore important to select personnel with personality traits that would lead to healthier coping strategies, thereby selecting personnel that could better adapt to a security environment. Similarly, identifying the specific coping strategies used by personnel should be identified in order to develop targeted stress management interventions. This could contribute to the overall wellness of security personnel working in high stress occupations, resulting in a healthy organisation and sound relationships with the community.


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