9-1-1; What Is Your Emergency?

Monday, March 16, 2009

You Don't Have to Be Crazy to Work Here: We'll Provide the Training

While we spend significant time planning for budgets, disasters, and staffing of our communications centers, we spend precious little time planning for the mental well-being of our employees and ourselves. In an industry that is especially susceptible to the effects of stress, our attention as managers and supervisors is often turned elsewhere. True, there is no shortage of discussion about the mental health of telecommuniators, but how many of these words are ever translated into action? Add to that the fact that minimal effort has been devoted to addressing stressors that affect the management staff, and the lingering connotation that someone who seeks counseling is somehow "crazy," the picture becomes complete.

This became clear to me at a recent APCO conference when someone jokingly asked "How many of your people are taking Prozac?" Without hesitation, I answered, "I don't know, but they're not the ones that I'm worried about." Although the comment drew a laugh, I was dead serious. Anyone who realizes that they have a problem and seeks treatment, has taken a positive step. My concern as a manager is dealing with those who do not recognize that help is needed. And until we work to develop a more accepting attitude, I am very much afraid that we will continue to fail our employees and ourselves.

Every year over 17 million Americans exhibit signs of depression. The bulk of these individuals range from 25-44, a very common grouping for telecommunicators. Statistics show that one in every twenty people in the work force suffers from depression. These figures are for the population as a whole. Common sense dictates that certain occupations can carry an even higher percentage. Among the factors listed for causes of depression is the perceived lack of control over events. Where have we heard that before? Perhaps from the dispatcher who senses that field units are in danger but cannot help? Or from the calltaker who receives a report of a seriously injured child but never has the chance during the next eight hours to call the ambulance provider and check on his condition?

Evidence also suggests that females tend to suffer from depression more than males, according to the National Institute of Mental Health...Take a good hard look around your center. Chances are you'll find dispatchers who are not exactly getting rich from their profession. Prior abuse and/or a current involvement in an abusive relationship can also take their toll. Low self esteem can be considered both a cause and a symptom of depression.

How many telecommunicators are trapped in domestic situations similar to those of callers that they try to help? How many are involved with law enforcement officers? How many never avail themselves of the same assistance that they prescribe to others on a daily basis? Until attitudes change, we will never know.

A final reason for the higher incidence of female depression may also come from a simple factor. Women may have sense to go get help when men still cling to their sense of machismo. It may be that females are not more inclined to depression than males -- just more inclined to report it. However, if you combine the high degree of stress involved in handling calls with the high percentage of women in front line positions, you create a volatile mix. A mix that requires careful handling.

As a supervisor, there are many things that you can do to keep this mix from exploding. While there is not a miracle cure, the first step is prevention. Do your best to create a non-hostile work environment. Sexual harassment policies and rules of conduct should be in place. Discourage gossip. Encourage team building. Institute an employee wellness program. Set aside space for exercise or relaxation. When you consider that depression causes the use of more sick time annually than a host of other common illnesses; it's good business. Work to get your staff a reasonable salary, and above all, provide them with support. Sometimes the most cost effective tool a manager can use is to simply spend some time in the center, especially during nights, weekends or holidays.

Secondly, know and recognize the signs of distress. Some may not be visible in the workplace, but any sudden change in behavior is usually a good indication that something is wrong. Included here is increased tardiness or absenteeism, moodiness, sloppy work, crying, or a general attitude of worthlessness or disinterest. Since these symptoms can also be associated with a wide variety of conditions, including substance abuse, be sure to take the proper approach. An employee voluntarily offering information about their situation is a far different story from one who does not. The same can be said for employees whose work is obviously affected by their emotional state as opposed to those who flawlessly perform. Each case must be handled on its own merits, but by a standard set of rules. The National Institute for Mental Health offers a brochure intitled "Recognizing When An Employee Is Depressed: A Guide For Supervisors." They may be contacted by calling 1-800-421-4211.

Finally, as a manager, you can provide means of getting help. Again, this starts with an open and honest invironment where staff feels comfortable in coming forward and asking for help. Distrust and ridicule will only serve to keep an employee with an untreated disease on the job. Do your best to make the proper treatment available.

As long as our profession involves people helping people, we need to learn to help ourselves as well. By realizing that mental illness is as deep a wound as any that we may treat through pre-arrival instructions, we will be taking a step in the right direction. And, by exercising the same compassion for those in our ranks as we do the public at large, we may be able to do both a big favor.

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