Meeting the increasing demand for analysis of physical evidence from crimes poses a challenge for U.S. crime laboratories. Faced with financial constraints that reduce the potential to hire and train personnel and purchase new equipment, laboratories find it extremely difficult to increase evidence analysis and reduce evidence backlogs. These difficulties affect the timely investigation of crimes, but they also affect the forensic scientists working to meet the demand for evidence analysis.
Little research has explored the sources of stress within the forensic science field and their influence on employee productivity. Occupational stress is an important factor influencing employee productivity and job satisfaction. Studies of criminal justice professionals in law enforcement and correctional agencies indicate that individuals who report high levels of work stress have generally poor work performance, are less productive, and report negative physical and emotional symptoms due to their experiences. High stress also corresponds to low levels of job satisfaction, which reduce employees’ organizational commitment and influence their attitude toward their position as a whole.
To shed light on the experiences of forensic scientists, researchers from Michigan State University, with support from NIJ, surveyed 899 forensic scientists working in public and private laboratories at the federal, state, and local levels across the United States. The survey results provided a better understanding of the work stress and job satisfaction of individuals engaged in handling and collecting evidence.
Work Stress and Job Satisfaction
Approximately 60 percent of scientists surveyed reported that they were emotionally drained by their work. In addition, 57.1 percent felt frustrated by their jobs, and more than 60 percent indicated they were under a lot of pressure and were tense or uptight at work. This amount of reported work stress is in keeping with research on various criminal justice system professionals.
Even with this reported stress, 85.6 percent of surveyed scientists reported being either somewhat satisfied or very satisfied with their jobs, and 64.1 percent would take the same job again without hesitation. Also, about half said that they would keep their current jobs regardless of other occupational opportunities or would strongly recommend their jobs to a good friend.
Sources of Work Stress and Coping Mechanisms
When examining the sources of forensic scientists’ work stress, the researchers found that although scientists felt respected by their prosecutors and judicial colleagues, more than half felt pressured by police or prosecutors to rush to produce scientific results. Most of the scientists felt that prosecutors did not understand why analyzing evidence takes time or that scientists work hard on a case even if they do not find evidence to support the charges brought against a defendant.
Although the majority of scientists felt they worked with supportive supervisors and colleagues, 53.3 percent believed their agency was inconsistent in applying new rules and policies, and about 50 percent at least slightly agreed that they received assignments without the manpower to complete them.
In addition, almost 80 percent of scientists reported that unfavorable work environment conditions, such as noise or temperature, decreased their productivity. Some respondents also reported psychological symptoms related to stress or trauma as a result of their work, including nightmares, irritability, feelings of alertness, and difficulty sleeping.
Forensic scientists most commonly used positive coping mechanisms, such as finding an activity to take their mind off things or talking with friends or a spouse, to address work-related stress. Few reported using medication or smoking to cope, but 44.4 percent said they would at least sometimes have a drink, and less than 10 percent reported seeking professional help from counselors or therapists.
After reviewing the survey data, the researchers made several recommendations for laboratory managers to support forensic scientists and improve productivity and job satisfaction, including the following:
- Establish flexible scheduling policies and equitably distributed overtime.
- Use clear staffing plans that reduce redundant positions and define accepted practices and procedures for all phases of evidence handling, analysis, and report creation.
- Institute policies that promote open communication between scientists and management, and set clear expectations for employee performance.
- Establish policies that promote scientists’ well-being within their physical work environments, awareness of signs of physical and emotional stress, and use of available mental health services.
Understanding the occupational experiences of forensic scientists and other professionals working within the criminal justice system is critical to ensuring the safety, health, and wellness of those committed to preventing and investigating crime and improving public safety. This study on the experiences of forensic scientists adds to the foundation for NIJ’s recent strategic research plan on safety, health, and wellness.
About This Article
The work described in the article was supported by NIJ grant number 2011-DN-BX-0006, awarded to Michigan State University.
This article is based on the grant report “Examination of the Conditions Affecting Forensic Scientists’ Workplace Productivity and Occupational Stress,” (pdf, 103 pages).