9-1-1 work takes a toll on those under the headset. Are you giving your employees the resources to thrive?
In 2007 a study was published—the first of its kind—exploring the connection between duty-related trauma in 9-1-1 and PTSD symptoms. This was the first conclusive evidence that proved what 9-1-1 professionals have known all along: This job takes a steep mental, emotional and physical toll.
Since then, more studies have come to similar conclusions. Research points to a higher rate of mental health problems resulting from vicarious trauma, secondary traumatic stress, compassion fatigue, and emotional labor. The physical effects are equally dangerous: The rate of morbid obesity (meaning an individual is 100 lbs. or more over their ideal body weight) is 50% higher in our comm centers than the general population.
These are harrowing facts. But the research also offers a ray of hope. Amid the challenges of the job, there are preventative measures leadership teams and employees can take to become healthier, and happier.
WHY PRIORITIZE EMPLOYEE HEALTH?
According to the APCO Project RETAINS Effective Practices Guide, the five primary factors that impact retention, staffing and overall success of a comm center can each impact employee health as well:
1. Whether the center is fully staffed (all authorized positions filled)
2. Monthly overtime hours
3. Job complexity
4. Hourly base pay
5. Working conditions
Each factor influences an employee’s ability and willingness to show up each shift.
There hasn’t been a formal study on the impact of short-staffing, overtime, no breaks and 9-1-1 professionals doing more work with fewer people. However, a study conducted in Israel explored the impact of judges’ willpower on the Israeli parole system, and we can use this to draw some of the same conclusions about comm centers.
The researchers analyzed 1,112 parole board hearings assigned to eight judges over a ten-month period. The judges heard arguments and took about six minutes to render a decision on 14 to 35 parole requests a day. Judges received only two breaks, one in the morning and one for lunch.
In the mornings and after lunch, when the judges had chances to rest and refuel, parolees’ chances for release peaked at 65%. Conversely, after going for long stretches without these breaks, the judges were much less likely to decide in favor of the parolees. In fact, researchers found the parolees’ chances for release fell to nearly zero by the end of the day.
These results show the extreme mental toll of repetitive decision making. For judges, each case has the potential to negatively affect the rest of the community if they decide wrongly. The high stakes and assembly-line rhythm demand intense focus throughout the day. As their energy is spent, judges mentally collapse into their “default choice,” which is to rule against the parolees.
This is not unlike the average day 9-1-1 professionals experience, processing call after call, broadcast after broadcast and interaction after interaction. At the end of a shift, how likely is a 9-1-1 professional to pick salad over fast food, or lace up the athletic shoes for some exercise instead of collapsing into bed or onto the couch? For exhausted and overworked calltakers, the “default choice” is often simply the easiest one — which doesn’t necessarily help us become happier or healthier.
Met with these challenges, many leave the profession, not because they “can’t hack it,” but because they’ve realized how critical it is to prioritize their own health. If the nature of the job is to multi-task and make life and death decisions every day, then creating an environment where someone performing these duties can thrive is critical to the correct functioning of the entire 9-1-1 system.
IMPROVING EMPLOYEE HEALTH
In the book “What Happy Companies Know,” the authors make the case for adopting a values-driven approach to everything from hiring and staffing, to pay and working conditions.
“For the happiest organizations,” the authors write, “the presence of a meaningful mission, leadership integrity, and the proper consideration of their employees, their many other stakeholders, their customers, and their communities” is the combination that matters most to success. “A thoughtful balance,” they say, “ is key.”
For example, if your center is not fully staffed, and you’re not actively working to get there—by every means possible—you’re implicitly telling your employees they don’t matter. While some employees might enjoy working lots of overtime, even the most dedicated will leave the profession when the benefits don’t match the significant cost to their physical health and mental wellbeing.
As you continue to improve your comm center, hold yourself accountable to the realities of your center’s culture and policies. Which areas of your center are you applying reactive thought processes to justify not taking action? Are you giving your employees the resources to thrive in a role that demands a great deal from them—mentally, physically and emotionally? What more can be done, from an employee health perspective, to care for your people?
When it comes to prioritizing people, the 9-1-1 industry is anything but balanced. The vast majority of communications centers continue to grapple with the same issues, year after year, because someone in the hierarchy hasn’t prioritized the right thing. The best centers know what this one thing is: the people under the headset.
Thanks for reading this article, containing excerpts of my upcoming book, “People Driven Leadership: How the Best 9-1-1 Centers Inspire Positive Change.”
This is the 19th article of 20. Stay tuned for the next!
“People Driven Leadership: How the Best 9-1-1 Centers Inspire Positive Change” will be available on April 13, 2020, the beginning of National Public Safety Telecommunicators Week. For more details, click here.