9-1-1; What Is Your Emergency?

Monday, March 30, 2009

Defeating Stress and Burnout

Taken from PowerPhone Stress Management Seminar Supplement

What is Burnout?

Burnout is a syndrome of physical, emotional and mental exhaustion, involving the development of negative self-concept, negative job attitudes, loss of concern and feelings for others.

It is brought on by severe or chronic stress directly related to the job.

The most significant factors contributing to stress and burnout for dispatchers are: 1) they work with people - often they have to make decisions which have major consequences in the life of others; their work is in areas of the county where pain, crime, poverty and despair are most evident; 2) they work within a large bureaucratic organization; to a large extent any bureaucratic organization is self-serving, rather than oriented toward the purposes for which it was established, thus it is herarchical and slow in responding, affecting its workers.

There are many stressors inherent in dispatching. If they are not handled appropriately by the dispatcher, they lead to burnout.

These include:
  1. The physical stress of working at a job characterized by sustained low level vigilance, periods of inactivity and high activity when responding to a call.
  2. The situations to which dispatchers respond are what others consider emergencies. Throughout this activity, the dispatcher must uphold the image of the department, that is, he/she is not allowed to show natural human emotions, such as fear, anger, frustrations.
  3. Disruption of schedule and work routine.
  4. The expectations persons entering Public Safety have of what their job will be and the reality they find are quite different from the TV image, and filled with dangers.

Other stressors which impact on dispatchers include: physical work environment, lack of communications from the department, lack of feedback from supervisor, lack of public appreciation of dispatching, lack of support system, and unresponsive establishment.

Symptoms of Burnout

The first symptoms of burnout are feeling tired, exhausted, anxious, having eating disorders, headaches, backaches, sleep disturbances, coupled with job dissatisfaction, inefficiency at work, accident proneness, and increased escape activites such as overeating, drinking, drug abuse, smoking and caffeine. The person becomes cynical, develops negative feelings about self and others.

The process of burnout evolves slowly. Starting with the above symptoms, it gradually evolves and the symptoms become more severe. It depends on how the dispatcher handles the risk factors, on his/her perception of stress, family pressures, and other problems.

As the process evolves, the dispatcher becomes a threat to agency morale and the efficiency of the department. Without intervention of some kind, the dispatcher will gradually deteriorate, depleting his energy resources, lowering the resistance to disease, suffering social isolation, and leading to eventual collapse or even suicide.

Coping with Burnout

Burnout, as already stated, is an inappropriate coping process that is related to one's own perceptions of one's work. As long as negative or threatening perceptions prevail burnout is increased and reinforced. Counteracting burnout by resorting to alcohol and/or drug abuse, heavy smoking or caffeine addiction aggravates the process and leads to severe physical, mental and emotional diseases. The first step towards improving the situation and combating burnout is to become aware of what is going on in one's own life. The following techniques, used on a daily basis, are useful to prevent burnout from developing:

  1. Detached Concern - handle a call in a detached, objective manner, while maintaining your human concern for the people involved. Do not make their problem your own problem.
  2. Intellectualize - make the situation less personal, minimize your own involvement, do not become a victim of your irrational beliefs, such as: *The idea that you must be thoroughly competent at all times to maintain your self-esteem; the idea that it is a catastrophe if a call does not work out as you would like it to; the idea that your unhappiness is due to the system and that you have no control over it.
  3. Compartmentalize - keep your work as distinct as possible from your personal life.
  4. Rely on fellow dispatchers - do not attempt to go for it alone, obtain help from others on specific calls.
  5. Create and use a support network - share your experiences and resources to prevent bottling up your negative feelings - they will either eat you up inside, or result in an explosion.
  6. Seek counseling or help from your supervisor, Employees' relations, and other agencies or clergy.

In your personal life you can take steps which will reflect positively on your burnout and help you cope more effectively. Choose the option which works best for you.

  • Listen to your body and heed early warning signals - develop a healthy life style.
  • Engage in more pursuits that you enjoy - give yourself something to look forward to.
  • Develop hobbies. Get involved in PAL, Little League, or similar groups, in your church.
  • Engage in physical exercise - schedule it into your daily routine.

Although dispatchers are at a high risk for burnout, the condition can be avoided with proper preventative maintenance. Take time to understand what is causing stress, and the quality of your life inside and outside the communications center will improve.

Are You Burning Out?

Look back over the past six months. Have you been noticing changes in yourself of in the world around you? Think of the office, the family, social situations. Allow about 30 seconds for each answer. Then assign it a number from 1 (for no or little change) to 5 (for a great deal of change) to designate the degree of change you perceive.

  1. Do you tire more easily? Feel fatigued rather than energetic?
  2. Are people annoying you by telling you, "You don't look so good lately?"
  3. Are you working harder and harder and accomplishing less and less?
  4. Are you increasingly cynical and disenchanted?
  5. Are you often invaded by a sadness you can't explain?
  6. Are you forgetting? (appointments, deadlines, personal possessions)
  7. Are you increasingly irritable? More short-tempered? More disappointed in the people around you?
  8. Are you seeing close friends and family members less frequently?
  9. Are you too busy to do even routine things like make phone calls or read reports or send out Christmas cards?
  10. Are you suffering from physical complaints? (aches, pains,headaches,a lingering cold)
  11. Do you feel disoriented when the activity of the day comes to a halt?
  12. Is joy elusive?
  13. Are you unable to laugh or joke about yourself?
  14. Does sex seem like more trouble than it is worth?
  15. Do you have very little to say to people?

Total the results. If you score:

  • 0 - 25 You are doing fine
  • 26 - 35 There are things you should be watching
  • 36 - 50 You are a candidate
  • 51 - 65 You are burning out
  • Over 65 You are in a dangerous place, threatening your physical and mental well-being.

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