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Identifying and Mitigating Workplace Stress Among Forensic Laboratory Managers, by Sewell (Forensic Science Communications, April 2000)

Identifying and Mitigating Workplace Stress Among Forensic Laboratory Managers, by Sewell (Forensic Science Communications, April 2000)


April 2000 - Volume 2 - Number 2

Identifying and Mitigating Workplace Stress Among Forensic Laboratory Managers

James D. Sewell
Director, Tampa Bay Regional Operations Center
Florida Department of Law Enforcement
Tampa, Florida

Stress Among Forensic Managers
Zero Tolerance for Mistakes
Quantity of Incoming Submissions
Conflict With Investigators and Prosecutors
Changing Managerial Responsibilities
Lack of Managerial Preparation
Upper-Level Management Understanding
Mitigating the Stress
Recognition of Managerial Responsibilities
Managerial Preparation and Training
Managerial Involvement


During the past several years, the impact of workplace stress on American workers has been increasingly recognized. Although the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health has acknowledged that views differ “on the importance of worker characteristics versus working conditions as the primary cause of job stress” (NIOSH 1999), the ultimate message is clear. Certain working conditions, such as excessive workloads and conflicting expectations, are stressful and negatively affect most people.

Within the law enforcement profession, stress has been the focus of significant research and discussion (Malloy and Mays 1984; Territo and Sewell 1999; Terry 1981). Academicians, researchers, and practitioners have critically examined subsets of the law enforcement population, including executives and administrators (Sewell 1986), investigators (Sewell 1994; Stratton 1979), officers with unique responsibilities (Bartol et al. 1992; Girodo 1991; Sandy and Devine 1978; Sheehan 1999), and nonsworn personnel such as dispatchers (Burke 1995).

Although major sources of stress were identified through this research, ongoing changes in law enforcement continue to produce significant levels of stress and its accompanying physical, psychological, and emotional manifestations. Support staffs have also been impacted, but, too often, administrative recognition of and reaction to such stress is lacking. This situation is most pronounced in the forensic science disciplines, among the laboratory systems and personnel that form the backbone of criminal justice effort and success.

Of particular concern and the focus of this article is stress on those who manage forensic scientists on a day-to-day basis. These forensic managers must not only recognize and effectively deal with the impact of change on their personnel, but must handle their own stress as well. This article identifies and suggests techniques to mitigate some of the major sources of stress these men and women face.

Stress Among Forensic Managers

Change in the forensic services has been explosive. The educational expectations for new forensic scientists, especially in the more technical fields, have expanded, and training time for beginning analysts has increased. Technological advancements and legal mandates have led to new, more exact, and often more complicated and complex procedures that require even greater skills on the part of practicing forensic scientists. The courts and the public in general, especially as a result of high-profile crimes and trials, have a greater, though not necessarily more realistic or valid, expectation of what forensic scientists can do and how they should perform their duties. Defense challenges to courtroom testimony by laboratory personnel and a wider use of defense experts demand the highest level of technical competency and courtroom presentation skills. The ethical requirements of the forensic sciences mandate the constant review and assurance of both organizational and individual integrity.

Stressors facing forensic managers fall within two major categories:

  • Those created by the nature of forensic sciences
    • Zero tolerance for mistakes
    • Quantity of incoming submissions
    • Conflict with investigators and prosecutors
  • Those created by the nature of the job
    • Changing managerial responsibilities
    • Lack of managerial preparation
    • Failure of higher level management to fully understand
      complex laboratory issues

Zero Tolerance for Mistakes

The integrity of forensic evidence analysis and its implications with regard to the guilt or innocence of suspects demand the highest quality work by forensic scientists. Technical or peer reviews of each case and internal and external proficiency tests are designed to ensure the accuracy of analyses and the competency of each bench examiner. Failure to “do right” can result in increased supervision, retraining, or removal from bench work and, ultimately, the loss of professional credibility. The importance of proper and accurate examination of forensic evidence leaves no room for error on the part of its examiners.

The forensic manager is the first line of defense in a forensic agency’s quality assurance effort. It is the manager whose supervision of technical and administrative reviews can identify professional and technical deficiencies. Like other law enforcement managers, it is this manager who must take firm and consistent steps, whether of a training or disciplinary nature, to ensure accuracy, quality, and system integrity. Like other individuals in managerial roles or supervisory positions, the forensic manager must deal with the consequences of necessary actions that may conflict with a desire to be liked by and get along with professional colleagues.

Quantity of Incoming Submissions

Law enforcement officers and prosecutors recognize the need for and value of forensic evidence in successful criminal prosecution. With changing technology and the enhanced capabilities of forensic laboratories has come an increased submission of evidence. In Florida, for instance, submissions to the state forensic laboratory system have increased 77 percent since 1991; in its Tampa facility, that increase has been 130 percent. Yet, during the same time period, the number of qualified forensic scientists at the latter facility has increased only 34 percent. Corresponding to the increase in submissions are expectations that the evidence can be worked in a timely manner; the evidence will be of some value, that is, it can be related to some offender; and the number of outgoing or completed cases keeps pace with the number of incoming items.

For the forensic analyst, this translates to a pressure to examine evidence in a timely and effective manner. For the laboratory manager, it requires an ability to manage increasing workloads in the most productive manner and, often, without a corresponding increase in human or technological resources. This case management responsibility may be further compounded by new agency initiatives that can disrupt the established analytical work process.

Emphasis on customer service often adds to stress. When laboratory caseloads are high, the willingness or need to go the extra mile and perform extra or enhanced testing can directly impact the speed with which cases can be analyzed. It is often the forensic manager who must balance customer satisfaction with the nature and extent of laboratory results against customer satisfaction with the time in which results are returned.

Significant laboratory staff turnover resulting in vacancies or a high number of personnel in extended training programs further adds to the problems experienced by the manager. The need to ensure the full competence of analysts in new techniques and technologies further pulls seasoned scientists from casework at a time when case volume necessitates a full staff. In an environment where the need for laboratory personnel is increasing, trained forensic scientists are at a premium, and the market drives the asking salaries of those competing for critical positions, the impact of case overloads on the manager is a consistent reality.

Conflict With Investigators and Prosecutors

Seasoned investigators and prosecutors not only understand evidence generated from crime scenes and the steps necessary for its effective processing, they also recognize the limitations of forensic analysis. Less experienced investigators and prosecutors may fail to value the expertise and experience of the forensic scientist and may have expectations based only on textbooks or technical publications; their colleagues’ lore; or movies, television, and news reports. As a result, investigators and prosecutors may find themselves at odds with the scientists so critical to their success. This becomes especially true when scientists find themselves in ethical dilemmas caused by pressure from investigators or prosecutors who expect the results of an examination to support a specific investigative theory.

Often the forensic manager must play the important dual role of gatekeeper and referee. It is the manager who must ensure that evidence deadlines, particularly those relating to trials, are met; that the best and most appropriate evidence needed to secure a conviction, is analyzed; and that each analyst continues to maintain the quality of his or her work product while handling increasing demands from the law enforcement or prosecutorial customer. The manager must ensure effective communication with an investigator or prosecutor who sees his or her case as the sole priority of the laboratory, which is carrying an overload of equally critical cases. It is a task that requires strong interpersonal communications, tact, and thick skin in dealing with the conflict and pressure inherent to these roles.

Changing Managerial Responsibilities

In Florida as well as in many other laboratory systems, the rules and roles have changed for the forensic manager. The position at one time was that of a traditional line manager, with casework as well as supervisory responsibilities. Many managers now find they have insufficient time to do any casework and are occupied instead with administrative responsibilities, case management, and budget and personnel issues. For them, the job has changed significantly, without their input or involvement but with increasing frustration as they move from science-driven to organization-driven responsibilities.

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Lack of Managerial Preparation

Many forensic laboratories effectively prepare laboratory analysts and ensure their ongoing professional development. In light of court cases critical of analysts’ skills and procedures, laboratories have established a high standard for preemployment preparation of forensic personnel and lengthy, detailed training programs focusing on professional competence. Such efforts are supplemented by continuing professional development programs that include additional in-service training; formalized forensic educational programs offered by organizations such as the Federal Bureau of Investigation; and discipline-specific professional workshops, seminars, and conferences.

For many laboratory managers, however, similar preparation for management responsibilities does not exist. For some, managerial promotion came as a financial reward when other options for remuneration for line-level positions were not available. These individuals moved from the area of their greatest expertise—and often greatest job satisfaction and most rewarding individual effort—to a position with fewer scientific requirements, greater ambiguity, and greater need for interpersonal skills. The organization’s shifting need for first-line managers occurred after they were selected for a position in which scientific skills were then still expected.

The skills required for successful personnel management in a contemporary organization are particularly demanding and, if lacking, generate significant stress. As is the case with other managerial positions, the laboratory manager must cope with limited budgets, balance personnel and staff workloads, identify and coordinate training needs and personnel problems, handle a variety of routine administrative duties, and be fully prepared for and attend myriad meetings—accomplished, of course, within a 40-hour week.

A forensic manager must be able to lead and motivate his or her scientific colleagues in a work environment characterized by continuing racial and ethnic diversity; differing levels of technological skills and comfort; and a younger generation of workers with different expectations of their job, its demands, and their responsibilities. Although workforce diversity provides many advantages to an organization, DeFrank and Ivancevich (1998, p. 7) noted that “the stress in a setting with a diverse workforce may result from differences in beliefs and values; a lack of clarity in regard to decision making, especially surrounding issues such as performance appraisal and promotion; differences in opportunities for advancement, reward and recognition; and conflict among the various role expectations that exist within an employee population that varies in ethnicity, gender, age and many other factors.”

Upper-Level Management Understanding

It must also be acknowledged that it is difficult, at times, for nonscientific upper management to fully understand complex laboratory issues. At the highest levels of an agency, especially when the laboratory is a subordinate institution within a law enforcement organization, the chief executive must balance a variety of policy, personnel, fiscal, and budgeting issues. The activities and requirements of a forensic laboratory are scientifically demanding, technologically complicated, and expensive. For chief executives without a scientific or forensic background, the decisions relating to a laboratory are critical and complex and require reliance on and trust in the expertise of forensic managers. Managers, however, may feel that their advice and counsel are neither sought nor heeded.

The latter feeling often results in a Catch-22 for the manager. When advice is sought, for instance, the manager may be concerned about providing unwanted or negative, albeit necessary, information. Conversely, he or she may be concerned that the scientific information provided is not easily or fully understood by the lay executive, and yet executives cannot understand if important information is not provided. For many manager-executive relationships, it is simply a matter of trust.

Mitigating the Stress

What can be done to mitigate, if not completely alleviate, the stress affecting forensic science managers? First, it must be acknowledged that considerable responsibility rests with the manager. Stress is in the eye of the beholder: What may negatively impact one individual may have little impact on another or may, in fact, actually motivate a third. To that end, each manager must realize that he or she has a responsibility to recognize those issues or events which affect his or her life and to adopt a personal program of stress reduction. For such a program to be successful, it must include several components:

  • Proper diet and nutrition to maximize the body’s capability to handle stress;
  • Cardiovascular fitness to reduce the impact of stress and to foster the body’s proper response to stress;
  • Outlets outside the job, such as hobbies or travel, to allow an emotional and psychological escape from job issues;
  • Sufficient rest and relaxation to allow the body’s restoration from stress; and
  • Stress-reduction techniques, such as relaxation responses, yoga, or tai chi, which can restore emotional balance.

Organizational practices and programs can further support the forensic manager’s stress-reduction efforts. An investment in stress management for managers is an investment in the organization’s leadership and future direction. In carrying out its responsibilities, the organization can and should

  • Recognize the impact of new management responsibility on recently promoted scientific employees;
  • Prepare managers for their responsibilities before promotion;
  • Provide training in management skills, interpersonal communications, time management, and stress recognition and reduction for managers and their employees; and
  • Ensure the involvement of managers in technical issues relating to the laboratory and human resource issues relating to their personnel.

Recognition of Managerial Responsibilities

The forensic science manager plays a vital role in ensuring the proper functioning of a laboratory. It is critical for a law enforcement agency to recognize the impact of organizational and managerial stress on those promoted from scientific ranks.

Recognition can assume many forms, including:

  • Treatment as valued members of a law enforcement management team;
  • Financial remuneration, benefits, and perquisites related directly to the position; and
  • Regular reinforcement and public recognition of the manager’s role and responsibilities.

Regardless of the techniques used, it must be clear to scientific managers that law enforcement executives understand and value the mission they perform.

Managerial Preparation and Training

For the most part, forensic laboratory managers are skilled scientists, well prepared and educated for their forensic tasks. As managers entrusted with laboratory operations, it is no less critical that they receive the basic management training given any law enforcement manager, with focus differing only in the nuances of the forensic laboratory.

Like other technical personnel promoted to managerial responsibilities, laboratory managers need the basic skills—the POSDCORB approach applied by law enforcement agencies. As defined by Luther Gulick and Lyndall Urwick in 1937, this classic acronym identified the principal functions of the manager as Planning, Organizing, Staffing, Directing, COordinating, Reporting, and Budgeting. Even more important, perhaps, are interpersonal communication skills: how to translate organizational needs and mandates into language and action a line scientist can understand, accept, and use.

Two other skills are particularly important to ensure adequate and appropriate training. The first deals with the effective use of time. It is a tremendous move from the scientist who generally controls his or her own time to a multitasked manager whose time is affected by those above and below in the chain of command. Only through effective and specific time-management training and use of acquired organizational skills can forensic managers avoid the overload normally associated with their job responsibilities.

Second, effective stress-management training is equally necessary. First-line managers must cope with the effects of stress not only on themselves but also on their personnel. Recognition of stress-causing practices, by either the manager or the organization, and a knowledge of stress warning signs are paramount to handling on-the-job stress. At the same time, the manager must be aware of resources within the organization, such as an employee assistance program, which can help employees and their families deal with life and job stressors.

Managerial Involvement

To feel a part of the organization and to ensure their commitment to the laboratory and organization management, forensic managers must be involved in technical and human resources issues relating to the laboratory. Communication among all levels of the organization is vital, and trust, especially between nonscientific executives and their laboratory managers, must be built, nurtured, and sustained.

Recognition by the organization is an important first step, and active involvement is a must. Within a law enforcement agency housing a forensic laboratory, no law enforcement officer knows or understands the technical issues better than the forensic scientist. The involvement of scientists in decisions relating to personnel, technological enhancements, process improvements, laboratory goals and expectations, and budgetary expenditures is an important component of the role they play within a laboratory. At the same time, because much of the subordinate forensic scientist’s stress may arise outside the organization, these managers play an invaluable part in training and educating the end users of forensic services, an approach that can lead to stress avoidance instead of mitigation or resolution.

In summary, the manager plays a critical role in the operations of today’s forensic laboratory. Well-versed in the technical aspects of forensic sciences, they, like many individuals promoted from technical positions, may be ill-prepared for the stress of their managerial responsibilities. To ensure their success on the job, it is critical that the managers and the organization recognize the sources of stress and adopt effective measures to mitigate it.


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