By: Diane Harris, ENP
Ask an emergency telecommunicator what concerns them about their health and well-being and many, if not most, will say job stress is one major factor. But it doesn’t have to be this way!
Yes, it’s normal to expect stress in all public safety jobs. And while stress can actually provide some benefits, when experienced over long periods, it can create several problems, for both the dispatcher and the communications center.
What Happens When We’re Stressed?
First, we know that stress causes the body to respond both physically and mentally by releasing adrenaline. This response can create increased alertness, clarity, energy, and elevate breathing and heart rates. Experiencing a heightened state of awareness allows humans to respond more quickly, which can be beneficial for telecommunicators for obvious reasons. But what’s probably also obvious is that high-stress cycles over a prolonged period can have serious negative health impacts. So, finding ways to release stress before, during and after shifts enables telecommunicators to better stay healthy and perform their duties to the best of their abilities.
Secondly, stress can be detrimental to the communications center and create a dangerous cycle of negativity. And we know negativity can increase the stress levels of everyone, repeating the stress cycle without completion (see below). Telecommunicators need to be ready for anything when they’re on shift, so performance degradation associated with constant/enduring stress is especially dangerous when lives are at stake and every second counts.
Fortunately, there are proven ways to help telecommunicators manage existing stress, as well as reduce the effects of long-term stress. Let’s dive into five ways to do exactly that.
1. Completing the stress cycle
One of the most important things needed to reduce stress is to complete the stress cycle. A bit of physical activity, like arm circles, walking in place and even stretching exercises at your workstation will help your body complete the stress cycle. Deep cleansing breaths also help and can be done at the console. Breathe in deeply for five seconds, hold for five seconds and exhale for 10 seconds, repeat this several times to complete the stress cycle.
In an article by Amy Rodquist-Kodet, Health Coach at the University of Kentucky, she explains how simple physical touch, like a 20-second hug (yes, pet hugs count!), can help complete the stress cycle, as can creative activities or simply laughing and crying. In the communications center, having communal puzzles or adult coloring books could be ways to help staff complete the stress cycle.
2. Starting and ending shifts without negative emotions
A recent study from AIMS Public Health found, emergency telecommunicators who start their shift in a bad mood experienced more shift irritability and inevitably, post-shift negativity. Seems obvious right? So, starting a shift in the middle of the stress cycle lowers resilience to the negativity that comes with emergency call handling and dispatching.
Encouraging telecommunicators to start their shift with time for some deep-breathing exercises or physical activity before passing down information from the previous shift may help them start their shift with fewer negative emotions. The same technique could be used post-shift, allowing the telecommunicators time after the debrief to complete the stress cycle and go home without lingering stress and negativity.
3. Encouraging adequate rest and sleep
Shift schedules in public safety may lead to disjointed and interrupted sleep patterns. Getting the right amount of rest, including sleep, lets our bodies recover from the stressful events of the day. Even when we complete the stress cycle as often as needed during our day, the body needs rest and sleep to recover both physically and mentally.
A communications center that runs long-term schedules can provide a more stable sleep schedule. Developing guidelines on number of hours worked in a day or week and including a minimum number of hours off between shifts may also encourage more telecommunicator rest and sleep.
4. Developing guidelines for chronic calls
A correlation between chronic calls and post-shift worry surprised the researchers of another AIMS Public Health study. Researchers, in conjunction with the Tucson Fire Department, anticipated high call volumes would indicate post-shift negativity, yet the impact of chronic calls on negative emotions was much higher.
The amount of time spent, as well as the sheer number of non-urgent calls create what are known as hindrance stressors. Chronic calls, like those asking for general information or advice and frequent or regular callers, are inevitable in the communications center. The study found these chronic calls are associated with insomnia and other post-shift telecommunicator stress. Developing guidelines and plans to quickly provide the needed information and a procedure for handling those calls can alleviate much of the stress on the telecommunicator.
5. Promoting psychological flexibility through self-care
A study of emergency telecommunicators published in the Journal of Traumatic Stress found a direct link from the level of psychological inflexibility to stress. The telecommunicators in the study who were regularly stuck in negative thinking, including anger, were less able to manage intense emotions, were more easily angered than normal and tended to grow increasingly numb in their emotional response over time.
Considering these may also be signs of burnout and compassion fatigue, it’s important to promote psychological flexibility. Providing education and support for self-care, such as regular breaks away from the headset, conveying an attitude of gratitude that hopefully becomes contagious, asking telecommunicators about plans (personally and professionally) to allow a focus beyond the daily shift grind, and providing a safe area for individual values and goals are all ways to help combat telecommunicator stress.
Being a telecommunicator is stressful enough, let’s not add to it.
Our communities rely on emergency telecommunicators to keep everyone safe. These amazing professionals work shifts in 24/7/365 operations dealing with anything and everything. Working to reduce stress for the folks under the headset not only helps them prolong their health and career, but ultimately helps improve the safety and well-being of everyone in our communities.
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