During her nearly three-decade career as a front line telecommunicator, Laura’s passion for the job waned. More recently, things had gotten worse. She was short with callers and impatient with coworkers. Her daily attitude, usually positive and upbeat, turned sourer each day.
She’d seen others become this way and knew the signs: burnout was setting in. Not content with letting her joy completely slip away, Laura knew she had to take action.
She attended a stress resilience training class and was reminded of self-care practices she once knew but had forgotten. She left the class with renewed purpose. She loved the job and couldn’t imagine being the crusty type—but if she continued down the present path, it might happen.
Laura took a few of the tools she learned in class and created a morning ritual. Before she went to work, she sat silently for five minutes, just breathing. After this she reflected on what she was most grateful for, writing three of these things down in her notebook. From her gratitude practice, she moved to her favorite part of the morning: dancing to some of her favorite music. Only after these three things did she make herself a delicious meal and then head to work.
A challenging role
9-1-1 professionals know this job takes a toll. It can cause gradual changes in the way we see the world, think about people, interact with family and friends, along with changes in the way we feel. For years now, research specific to the 9-1-1 industry have supported these revelations, showing the connection between duty-related trauma and PTSD symptoms (Troxell, 2008; Pierce & Lilly, 2012), the impact of compassion fatigue and emotional labor (Tracy, 1998; Goold, 2010), and the physical effects of working in the profession (Lilly et al., 2015)
Regaining balance when you work long shifts
The research, while confirming what 9-1-1 professionals already know as to the effects, also provides hope. The 2015 Lilly et al. study found a correlation between mental health and physical health, offering the possibility that, as we prioritize the things that lift us up and make us feel healthier, we can stave off the physical effects of stress, including weight gain, chronic pain, insomnia, and heartburn.
mind wandering contributes to 9-1-1 Dispatcher stress
Another study (Meischke et al., 2015) found that self-awareness and, specifically, being aware of your thoughts, feelings and emotions on a moment-by-moment basis can help lessen stressful feelings. Harvard researcher Matthew Killingsworth, who has been monitoring the daily happiness level of 15,000 people using an iPhone app, confirms this. For the past 7 years, Killingsworth and his team have found that people are most unhappy when they are stuck ruminating. It’s true—mind-wandering creates unhappiness and stress. Taking time to be still and focus on one thing, like your breath, can help prevent this rumination (and it turns off the stress response).
The heroic caregiver
Meischke et al.’s 2015 study also found that over commitment can also contribute to higher stress levels. Heroic caregivers (as most 9-1-1 pros are) tend to spread themselves thin, sacrificing their health and happiness for the care of and attention to others. You know what they say about “all work and no play.” Getting out of the work mindset can do wonders for your mental and physical health.
Guard against burnout by making time for you
What the research (and Laura’s experience) points to is the fact that, in order to thrive in 9-1-1 we must balance periods of high stress with periods of recovery. The “always on” mode of living wears us down and leaves us exposed to illness, burnout, and, if nothing else, being tired and cranky.
Managing your energy levels without drugs, addictions (to caffeine and sugar, for example), and drama is possible with a few minor tweaks—and it doesn’t have to take much time. Laura’s morning “me time” only took 10-15 minutes each day. Time that she was using to skim her Facebook timeline anyway.
4 steps, every day for 14 days, for reduced stress
If you could use more time for you, less stress, and more happiness, try these four steps tomorrow morning, and see you how feel. Commit to 14 straight days for best results.
Morning ‘Me Time’ Ritual
- Sit and breathe for 5 minutes. Set a timer; sit in a comfy chair with your back upright, hands on your lap and feet planted on the ground; close your eyes; breathe in and out of the nose; keep coming back to the feeling of the breath any time the mind wanders.
- Practice gratitude. Get a notebook and write down three things you are supremely grateful for. Things that bring a smile to your face and warm your heart. It may seem challenging at first, but just keep writing.
- Play some upbeat music. I like it loud. Two or three songs will do the trick, and don’t forget to move your body. Don’t worry, no one’s looking.
- Focus on something you’re looking forward to today. Having a positive vision of where you’re going can help you overcome the bumps along the way.
After 14 consecutive days of this, you will notice a difference. If not, you can always go back to the old way. Once you see the difference, continue for another 14 days. It takes about 30 days to form a new habit.
With more space to think, less anxiety and less stress, you might notice there are other things you’d like to do, for you. Laura remembered her arts and crafts hobby she’d left behind years earlier. She returned to DIY projects around the house and engaged her old hobbies with fresh passion. This life outside of work helped her leave work at work, and have more fun. These positive feelings continued spreading to every corner of her life, especially at her 9-1-1 job.
It’s been over a year since Laura attended that training class, and she’s still taking time for herself every morning. She’s still a dispatcher as well, using her positivity to make the difference she came here to make.
What activities restore your joyfulness?
Studies cited in this article
Goold, M. (2010). Compassion Fatigue, Compassion Satisfaction, Burnout, And Peritraumatic Disassociation in 9-1-1 Telecommunicators; 9-1-1 in Crisis
Lilly, M.M., et al. (2015). Predictors of obesity and physical health complaints among 9-1-1 telecommunicators. Safety and Health at Work, http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.shaw.2015.09.003.
Meischke, H., Painter, I., Lilly, M., Beaton, R., Revere, D., Calhoun, B., Seeley, K., Carslay, Y., Moe, C., Baseman, J. (2015) An Exploration of Sources, Symptoms and Buffers of Occupational Stress in 9-1-1 Emergency Call Centers. Annals of Emergency Dispatch and Response.
Pierce, H.A., & Lilly, M.M. (2012). Duty-related trauma exposure in 9-1-1 telecommunicators: Considering the risk of Posttraumatic Stress Disorder. Journal of Traumatic Stress, 25, 211-215.
Tracy, K. (1998). Emotional Labor at 911: A Case Study and Theoretical Critique. Journal of Applied Communication Research, 26, 390-411.
Troxell, R. (2008). Indirect Exposure to the Trauma of Others: The Experiences of 9-1-1 Telecommunicators.
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And, if you found this helpful, check out our other Health & Wellness blogs.
About the Author
Adam Timm is the author of the #1 bestselling book, Stress Is Optional! How to Kick the Habit, and the co-founder of The Healthy Dispatcher, a company devoted to inspiring front line 9-1-1 telecommunicators with innovative training classes, leadership coaching, and consulting services.A 9-1-1 telecommunicator for over a decade and a passionate advocate for PSAP health and wellness, he brings his stories from the front line into his writings and classes. He is a frequent keynote and breakout session speaker at APCO and NENA conferences around the country, and his second book, Dispatcher Stress: 50 Lessons on Beating the Burnout, is out now.
Also available at watsonconsoles.com, Adam's blog How the Best Comm Centers Motivate Frontline Employees.