Speaking with PSAP directors and communications managers across the country, some painful realities are expressed consistently. Morale is at an all-time low. Attrition is preventing staffing levels from getting to where they need to be. Absenteeism is out of control. Claims for injury-on-duty are on the rise, filed by employees with less and less time on the job.
Day-to-day, things feel really challenging, both for leadership and the line.
But the traditional performance metrics don’t reflect this harsh reality. On paper, everything looks a-ok. Better than ok!
You’re answering 90% of all 9-1-1 calls within 10 seconds; the call abandon rate is low; the dispatch queue is being handled efficiently; officers are getting the calls quickly; your team is on top of field emergencies; non-emergency calls are getting timely attention; and complaints are comparatively infrequent, given increasing call volume.
From the perspective of those who make the money decisions (who are sometimes quite removed from the comm center floor), the operation is getting more and more efficient.
You can’t blame them for thinking this, can you? Your center is meeting or exceeding expectations in nearly every category, despite staffing levels that are 20-30% below where they are supposed to be.
Congratulations should be in order! Not exactly.
If, on paper, things are so good, why do people not want to come to work? Why are the instances of burnout and the attendant health maladies (high blood pressure, heart disease, chronic pain, morbid obesity) so commonplace?
Why is the workplace so toxic that newly qualified trainees would rather quit than continue working, even after muscling through months of instruction and acclimation to this unforgiving work?
Because the performance metrics used completely overlook the human factor. The whole story is not being told. Yes, you’re meeting the state mandates for call service, but what is the cost of doing it with a workforce so overstretched they’re about to break?
Workplace Well-Being as the New Measure
The private sector has known for some time the value of workplace well-being. Google goes out of its way to insure that its employees are happy and healthy, without incurring huge expense. A 2010 Harvard study of firms with 1,000 or more employees found that medical costs fall by about $3.27 for every dollar spent on wellness programs, and that absenteeism costs fall by about $2.73 for every dollar spent.
Further studies have shown that increasing happiness in the workplace,
- reduces the cost of employee turnover by 46 percent.
- reduces the cost of sick leave by 19 percent.
- increases performance and productivity by 12 percent.
As Danielle Pratt puts it in her article for CMA Management (April, 2010), “There is a growing mountain of evidence that the incidence of employee stress, illness and injury can be slashed.”
In short, healthy and happy employees make a healthy organization. And the above figures are from companies who don’t work in emergency services. If workers who aren’t being bombarded with the daily toils of the population are demonstrating such gains, what might this mean for 9-1-1 telecommunicators, and how do we get there?
Pratt goes on to say that, “Organizations that embrace their role in employee well-being are able to reject the energy-sapping debate over responsibility in favor of a collaborative partnership.”
With mounting evidence that work-related stress is having more of an impact on 9-1-1 telecommunicators than we ever knew, this collaborative partnership between the frontliners and top-level leadership is due now, more than ever.
The Value of the Empowered Workforce
Recent victories at large PSAPs on both coasts prove that empowering your frontline can improve morale, drive down costs, and enhance team culture.
Ivan Whitaker, of Polk County Communications in Florida, encountered the following challenges:
- 44% turnover rate
- Excessive sick leave use @ 30+ call-outs in a year by one employee
- High volume disciplinary actions related to this sick leave use
- Morale was very low
- Borderline harassing, high fear/low trust culture
In an effort to boost retention and reduce sick leave, Mr. Whitaker created a “Morale Team,” comprised of the most vocal (and most negative) members of the center, who determined where to direct the focus of the initiative.
Through a series of specific actions directed towards these goals, the center experienced:
- Reduction in sick leave by 54%.
- Reduction in overtime by 27%.
- Reduction in turnover by 22%.
- Approximate cost savings greater than $200,000 per year.
Mr. Whitaker’s organization employed over 145 employees handling 1.2 million calls for service per year.
Similar circumstances were seen in Los Angeles. Captain Joel Justice, then commanding officer of Communications Division for Los Angeles Police Department, was met with high turnover, excessive sick leave usage and low morale.
During his two-year tenure, through a series of simple measures used to improve morale, sick leave usage dropped by 45% year-over-year. This huge PSAP employs over 500 9-1-1 telecommunicators (all cross-trained on both calltaker and dispatcher functions), processing over 3 million calls for service per year.
Well-being as a Proactive Strategy
Well-being, by definition, is a state of happiness, health and prosperity. In both examples above, while “well-being” wasn’t the predetermined goal, it was, in fact, the improved level of health and happiness that brought prosperity to each PSAP.
The unintended result was a heightened sense of workplace well-being.
Also in both cases, while the traditional metrics would still hold true, the bigger picture is vastly different.
What if, instead of seeing the strategies used by Mr. Whitaker and Captain Justice as last-ditch efforts to improve a desperate situation, such initiatives were the rule? What if well-being was the intended result?
Quite naturally and automatically, things would improve. A strategy directed at employee well-being is the only one that can effect all the other metrics.
The traditional metrics are important, of course. We need calls answered in a timely manner, vehicles dispatched to the scene in a short amount of time, and a small number of complaints each year.
But if the “human factor” isn’t taken into consideration, we’re left with a workforce that’s maxed-out, stressed-out, and calling out sick.
With the possibility that NG911, complete with video and texting capabilities, will only make things more challenging for frontline operators, action needs to be taken now.
What can you do, today, to better understand where your people are at?
Here’s three easy things:
- Ask someone, and be willing to listen. Many supervisors pay lip service wanting to improve matters, but rarely do anything than maintain the status quo. Your people can help if enlisted in the effort correctly.
- Buck the negativity trend, and lean towards positivity instead. Compliment members of your team daily, let them know their efforts are appreciated.
- Don’t wait until things are worse to take action. Improvements can always be made, no matter where the set-point is today.
The retention challenges experienced at PSAPs across the country have beenstudied at length, the impact of chronic stress on this workforce is widely known, and the biggest causes of this stress are often controllable, internal factors.
With a little daring, care and effort, you can better understand how your PSAP is performing, without overlooking the human factor.
A Better Way to Measure PSAP Performance
To get the whole picture, any measure of PSAP performance must include some aspect of the human factor.
Some examples of what PSAPs around the world are doing:
- Based on the European Emergency Number Association’s (EENA) guidance, the Estonian Emergency Response Centre, located in Tallinn, Estonia, uses labor turnover as one of their key performance indicators.
- A 1998 study by the Minnesota State Legislative Auditor entitled, “911 Dispatching: A Best Practices Review,” identified several key performance measures related to supporting a trained and qualified workforce. These measures include regular employee performance evaluations; availability of stress management practices; low percentage of dispatchers with stress-related illnesses left unmanaged; high percentage of shifts with adequate dispatcher staffing; and at least 75 percent employee retention rate over five years.
Incorporating two or more of the above performance measures as a part of the traditional mix can add a much needed dimension to the perspective of overall organizational health. As we’ve said, health equals wellness.
Quality assurance begins with hiring the right people, but keeping these people takes a strategic vision devoted to measuring what matters.
What efforts are you using to enhance wellness at your PSAP? Please share below!
About the Author:
Adam Timm is the author of the #1 bestselling book, Stress Is Optional! How to Kick the Habit, and the cofounder of The Healthy Dispatcher, a law enforcement training company that offers stress resilience, communication and leadership classes designed for Emergency Dispatchers.
A 9-1-1 telecommunicator for over a decade, he brings his stories from the frontline into his writings and classes. His second book, Dispatcher Stress: 50 Lessons on Beating the Burnout, is out now.