Written by Myra Allcock, communications supervisor for the Orange County (Fla.) Sheriff's Office
Public safety telecommunicators answer the call 24/7, 365 days a year. Our chose profession, our calling, is extremely stressful - whether we work from a 9-1-1 console, a dispatch console, or a supervisor's console.
Before we ever answer the first 9-1-1 call, or dispatch the first incident of the shift, we experience stress. Stress lives at home with our daily interactions, our relationships, our lifestyles; life in general can be stressful. Then add in all the job-related stressors: shift work and mandatory overtime that force us to be absent from major family events, difficult work environments and even internal conflicts. Now toss in steady exposure to duty-related trauma: a frightened caller in the midst of the worst situation of their life, giving life-saving instructions to the parent of a seriously injured child and other high-priority calls. We dispatch calls for service and track the status of up to 40 or 50 uniformed patrol officers and specialty units. We document self-initiated traffic stops, foot pursuits and vehicle pursuits with skill, patience, teamwork and courage, knowing that the next radio transmission may be those words that all of us train for and pray that we never hear, "shots fired, officer down."
It's a wonder that we can function at all, let alone at the fast pace that public safety communication demands of us. As supervisors and managers, we train our staff and ourselves to handle the uncooperative or distraught caller or injured officer effectively, efficiently and with calm professionalism, but that doesn't mean these calls don't affect us on a personal level. What is shown on the outside does not necessarily reflect how we feel on the inside.
We know that handling life-threatening emergencies day in and day out, while highly rewarding, is also highly stressful. As a result, telecommunicators experience a wide variety of job-related stress issues. These issues vary in the way that they manifest and the intensity of the manifestation. Stress reveals itself physically in the form of headaches, sleep problems, fatigue and general health problems such as diabetes, weight gain, high blood pressure and heart disease. Emotionally we may experience anxiety, depression or irritability, and behaviorally stress may result in eating disorders, drug or alcohol abuse, or self-imposed isolation and social withdrawal. The effects of job-related stress, including the human and financial toll to our agencies, are universal and not unique to any one PSAP.
Job-related stress routinely leads to increased absenteeism and burnout - comm center supervisors and managers know all too well that stress impacts job satisfaction and ultimately turnover in our agencies. In an attempt to reduce stress-related health problems and impacts to the agency, most PSAPs offer some form of stress management training. Some agencies make this training mandatory for new employees; others make it a standard part of the annual in-service training requirement. Most of us have been to at least one of these stress management classes - some can recite the tips for reducing stress from memory. But knowing the information and practicing stress management are two different things.
While the basics of stress management don't change much from year-to-year, what does change is our ability and willingness to follow them, which makes them worth repeating.
Eat right: Be mindful of what you eat. Well-fed and properly nourished bodies are better prepared to handle the stress we face every day. Start your day with breakfast, and keep your energy levels up and your mind clear with nutritious meals and snacks at regular intervals throughout the day.
Get plenty of exercise: Physical activity is an important piece of the puzzle when it comes to reducing and preventing the effects of stress. Aim for a minimum of 30 minutes of exercise, three times per week. You do not have to buy expensive gym memberships. Ask around your agency, most have training facilities and wellness programs for employees. Check with your city or county Parks and Recreation Department to see if they offer free memberships, access to their facilities or programs for public employees. Aerobic exercise is great for releasing pent-up stress and tension - take a walk during your lunch break, take the stairs instead of the elevator, park a little further away from the building - every little bit helps!
Relax and smell the roses: Relaxing at the end of the day and on your days off will help reduce your stress. Make it a point to spend time socializing with friends and family, read a book, shoot a few hoops, go for a bike ride, take up gardening or treat yourself to a massage and some meditation. Make sure that you take vacation time and do your best to make sure that vacations are relaxing. How many times have you said "I just need a couple of days off to relax," thinking that a mini-vacation will give you rest and relaxation, only to find that just when you are starting to relax and enjoy yourself it's time to go back to work? Try to take a two-week vacation instead of two one-week vacations, you might find that you are more rested and focused when you go back to work.
Get plenty of rest: Doctors (and our moms) have told us since childhood that we need eight hours of sleep to be at our best. We know that stress can cause us to lose sleep and lack of sleep causes us stress - a vicious circle that compounds itself over time. You know how fuzzy your thoughts can be after a night of tossing and turning. Then you go to work tired and maybe a little grumpy, you can't concentrate, you aren't quite as proactive and you end up making silly mistakes. We have all had days like this that make us feel less effective and even more stressed. Thankfully, these are a few things that we can do to help ourselves get a more restful sleep:
- Try to stick to a routine. Do your best to get into bed at the same time every night, or day depending on your shift.
- Don't take the job home. Your brain needs time to slow down before you put your head on the pillow. Refrain from any type of mentally challenging activities several hours before bedtime. In other words, relax!
- Turn the TV off before you go to sleep. If you don't, part of your brain may actually continue to pay attention and interfere with sleep. If you need some kind of white noise to help you fall asleep, consider using a sound machine. Natural sounds such as rainfall, waterfalls or ocean waves tend to be more soothing and less distracting to the brain.
- Stay away from caffeine or alcohol after dinner. Caffeine is a stimulant. Every day we reach for our caffeine fix as soon as we wake up, usually in the form of coffee, tea or soda, and we take in caffeine continuously throughout the day in these forms as well as in our favorite chocolates. Excessive amounts of caffeine may prevent you from falling asleep. Additionally, you should steer clear of alcohol close to bedtime, as it can lead to disrupted sleep later in the night.
Socialize: Socializing provides support and helps you tolerate life's trials and tribulations. On those days when you are a bit depressed or irritable and you think that you just want to stay in bed, try reaching out to friends or co-workers. Meet a friend for coffee, email a relative or visit your place of worship. Do you have a few extra hours every week or two? Think about volunteering for a charitable group or at a local school or a library. You can make a few new friends and help yourself while you are helping others.
Laugh: Whether it's a giggle or a big hearty belly laugh, laughing is great medicine. While it may not cure all that ails you, laughter will certainly make you feel better. According to the Mayo Clinic, laughing is a great stress reliever and provides several healthy benefits:
- Laughter relaxes the whole body. A good, hearty laugh relieves physical tension and stress, leaving your muscles relaxed for up to 45 minutes after.
- Laughter boosts the immune system. Laughter decreases stress hormones and increases immune cells and infection-fighting antibodies, thus improving your resistance to disease.
- Laughter triggers the release of endorphins, the body's natural feel-good chemicals. Endorphins promote an over-all sense of well-being and can even temporarily relieve pain.
- Laughter protects the heart. Laughing improves the function of blood vessels and increases blood flow, which can help protect you against a heart attack and other cardiovascular problems.
Not everyone has the skills to recognize and manage stress. Managers, supervisors, communications training officers (CTOs) and telecommunicators must be aware of and able to recognize the causes, effects and symptoms of stress in ourselves, our coworkers, our trainees and our comm centers. It is equally vital we have access to and utilize the resources to mitigate the immediate and cumulative impact of job-related stress on our staff, our agencies and ourselves. We've heard it over and over again and, mandatory or not, training alone is not the answer to managing stress in our comm centers. So what else can we - should we - be doing?
Supervisors and managers can do several things to help our staff and ourselves:
- Make readily available a variety of educational materials and resources about stress-related risks as well as information about local and online resources to manage stress, including traumatic stress disorders, chronic stress and related health problems. Current information on the role of nutrition, exercise and sleep in prevention of stress disorders and stress-related diseases is also beneficial.
- Educate your staff about the employee assistance programs (EAPs), the benefits of using them, how to access them and the difference between voluntary EAP use and mandatory referrals to an EAP.
- Pay attention to your staff and each other. While each of us has a different threshold, as a group we are not very good at admitting that we are having difficulty shaking off that one call or incident or that we might need a little help every now and then.
- Supervisors need to make it possible and encourage 9-1-1 telecommunicators to take a break after a bad call. At the very least, check on them during and after the incident.
- Remember that managers and supervisors are not immune to stress and its effects. It is important that we encourage and support each other in the same way that we encourage and support our staff. Knowing that someone cares is important.
If your agency has a critical incident stress management (CISM) program, utilize that when you have a critical or traumatic incident. If your agency does not have a CISM program in place, check with sister agencies to see if they have one and are willing to assist when needed or, better yet, work with your agency to start one. If your agency has a CISM program, consider joining the team. Having telecommunicators on CISM is advantageous for the comm center and the agency.
Make sure that your staff members are included in critical incident stress debriefings (CISD). When an incident is deemed as a critical incident that requires CISD, more times than not the communications staff is left out of these important debriefings. Telecommunicators are a significant part of every critical incident. 9-1-1 telecommunicators are the "first" first responders, yet many times they are left wondering about the outcome of a critical incident. Being able to hear the whole story, and seeing and talking to the officers involved in the incident goes a long way to addressing or relieving telecommunicators' anxiety and stress. 9-1-1 telecommunicators need to know that they are as important as the officers are. They also need to know that CISD is not a forum to review how well all of us did or did not do our jobs - it's not a bashing session. They should know that their feelings are normal and that CISD is confidential, so they can be comfortable talking about their feelings.
Coworkers can often be the strongest support system, so watch over each other. Remember, what seems routine to you may not be routine to someone else. Maybe they have had a personal experience that affects how they handle that routine call. We are human, we are unique and we will handle and react to stress in very different ways. Your empathy and compassion will be beneficial. Conversely, don't make your coworkers feel embarrassed or incompetent for asking for help. Remember, the next call may be yours and you might need that coworker's support.
We may not be able to control all of what happens in our lives, but we can absolutely control how we react and mitigate the impact of the resulting stress. While some of life's major stressors are unpredictable, we all have daily stressors that we can control - those little things that drain our energy and make us feel more stressed overall. These daily stressors come in all different shapes, sizes and situations: cluttered desks, messy kids' rooms, annoying co-workers, overly critical friends or family members and so on. It's amazing how quickly they can all add up.
Our job is challenging, rewarding, demanding and difficult. Having healthy, engaged staff members is mission critical. We may not be able to control every incident every day, but we can certainly arm our staff and ourselves with the knowledge and tools to manage how we respond to the day-to-day chaos that has become our routine. We are each responsible for creating a culture of open communication at every level. If we cannot or will not depend on each other and our management teams to help us recognize and mitigate the stress before and after the call, then who can we depend on?