Occupational stress and work engagement of dog unit members in the South African police service : a qualitative study.
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Police officers have a significant role to play in the stability, economic growth, and development of South Africa. Therefore, it is critical for the South African Police Service (SAPS) to have police officers who are engaged in their work. However, given the high levels of crime and violence in South Africa, and the ensuing dangers associated with police work, many of these situations are experienced as stressful, often resulting in psychological distress. On the contrary, some police officers, regardless of the stressful nature of their job, seem to enjoy their work and exert greater effort in dealing with these stressors. The purpose of this study was to provide a qualitative description of occupational stress and work engagement as perceived and experienced by police officers in the SAPS Dog Unit. The researcher’s interest in this research topic, emanated when, as part of a Psychometry Internship at the SAPS, the researcher was involved in psychometric evaluation of police officers who wanted to join the Dog Unit. The researcher had the opportunity to interview police officers who acknowledged that, despite being aware of the stressful nature of the job, they were willing to deal with these stressors. Furthermore, a comprehensive search of literature revealed that there are no qualitative studies exploring perceptions and experiencesof occupational stress and work engagement of police officers in the Dog Unit. This motivated the researcher to conduct this study to fill in the gap of qualitative research literature. A qualitative research design was used and the transactional approach to stress formed the theoretical premise of this study. A purposive non-probability sampling technique resulted in10 interviews being conducted with both male and female dog handlers at the SAPS Dog Unit in Durban. The researcher utilised a semi-structured interview schedule and all audio-taped interview data was analysed using thematic content analysis. The findings of the study suggest that individual differences and situational factors are useful in explaining how stressors produced different reactions in police officers at the Dog Unit based on their cognitive appraisal of work demands. The most common sources of occupational stress experienced by participants include: (a) task related stressors, (b) organisational stressors, and (c) personal stressors. With regard to these stressors, the results suggest that organisational stressors greatly affect participants compared to task-related stressors. With regard to perceptions and experiences of work engagement, the results reveal that perceptions of work engagement spanned over six domains: (a) inner calling, (b) an active choice to become a police officer, (c) to serve and protect, (d) sense of duty, (e) recognition, and (f) to form an identity. Interestingly it was found that the following resources positively influenced work engagement, namely, social support, skills and abilities, peer support, and self-efficacy. In addition, findings suggest that positive appraisals of work situations and being immersed in one’s job significantly influenced participant’s experiences of work engagement. Thus, the findings suggest that adequate resources and positive appraisals can promote engagement even when the conditions for engagement are less than optimal.This study contributes greatly to the evolving body of knowledge on occupational stress and work engagement and provides a unique context specific perspective to understanding how police officers in the Dog Unit perceive and experience occupational stress and work engagement. Prior to the present study, no studies had been undertaken to specifically understand perceptions and experiences of police officers in the Dog Unit. It has become clear that further research in this regard is required to bring about a deeper understanding of the perceptions and experiences of occupational stress and work engagement of police officers in the Dog Unit. The objective being to provide more support to police officers to ensure the stability, economic growth, and development of South Africa. In contrast to studies which show that high job demands and lack of job resources negatively impact employee engagement, findings from this study show that despite being exposed to conditions that are less favourable for engagement, police officers at the Dog Unit are engaged. An understanding of police officer’s perceptions and experiences of occupational stress and work engagement may provide direction for strategies to provide more support to dog handlers and improve work engagement in the Dog Unit.