Moneyball And Wellness Culture

Robert Mann

Best Practices

Billy Beane: “Hi director, does the culture of your PSAP support the well-being of your 911 emergency dispatchers?”

PSAP Director: “Absolutely, that is my leadership philosophy. We have all the moving parts in place to support our team’s wellness!”

Billy Beane: “Well, if you have a wellness culture, why are so many 911 emergency dispatchers not well?”


The data paints a grim picture

Billy Beane’s question in the hit movie Moneyball is, “If he’s a good hitter, then why doesn’t he hit good?” We should pose a similar question to the leadership of a PSAP that claims to have a wellness culture: “If a culture of wellness exists within your organization, then why do emergency dispatchers suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) at rates between 18% and 24%?”—according to statistics from research performed by Associate Professor, Clinical Psychology, Michelle Lilly, Ph.D., Northern Illinois University (USA).

The National Institute of Mental Health reports an annual rate of only 3.6% suffering from PTSD among American adults, with a lifetime prevalence of 6.8%. On the high end, PTSD occurs within the 911 profession at nearly four times the rate in the general population. 

Some organizational leaders are still old school and espouse the “rub some dirt on it” philosophy regarding public safety personnel’s exposure to trauma. However, many well-intentioned leaders are attempting to do something about it. The question is, are they throwing good money, time, and effort after ineffective solutions? Undoubtedly, many past practices were insufficient, even if the effort was high. Unfortunately, the results have fallen short. Has leadership, while having been well-intentioned, just not known what to do?

It doesn’t have to be this way

If your primary strategy is responding, treating, or funneling your team members to your Employee Assistance Program (EAP) when they are displaying adverse symptoms or requesting assistance, then you conceded to allow them to fall victim to stress injuries. Instead, why not train your team members to build the personal skills needed to come out the other side of adversity, trauma, and stress stronger and more resilient? There is proof this works, which we’ll get to later on.

Consider how law enforcement agencies train for the operational challenges they know their team members will face while on patrol. For example, most agencies send officers to the firing range monthly or quarterly to maintain the skill they developed during their initial training. In addition, they provide an initial emergency vehicle operations training and support it with ongoing training. This is because these agencies know their officers must deploy firearms safely and effectively, even if it means not firing them. They also know officers will need to drive their patrol units in a manner beyond the scope of basic driving skills. These agencies know their officers will need these skills, so they train them to perform effectively within the law and policy. They do this before the officers need to use those skills.

I assert that all leaders within the 911 profession are fully aware that their team members WILL repeatedly be exposed to trauma in their work. So why not think of exposure to trauma like any other function that you know will happen on the job and train in advance and train continuously?

Preparing for the known

Suppose you accept that PSAP personnel will be repeatedly exposed to trauma and that preparing them for that exposure in advance is more effective than waiting until they display symptoms of stress injuries. In that case, the next question is how to train them. And, just to be clear, I am not proposing that the after-the-fact responses go away; they fulfill an essential need. But they are just not the complete answer to what is needed.

How to effectively train for the inevitable is a crucial question because failure to train correctly can be damaging, leading to a false sense of preparation and the belief that the problem is resolved. The primary factor determining how you come out on the other side of any adversity is your state of being when the challenge begins. After all, you would not start a journey across the desert with an empty gas tank, no water, and no sleep, would you? Of course not! You would want to start that journey with a full tank of gas, plenty of water, and be well-rested. By doing so, you have increased your chance for a successful journey.

When your team members develop wellness skills and put them into practice, we refer to that as building Wellness Capital. When they face trauma but do not have the necessary Wellness Capital, they are more likely to come out with damage (such as depression, anxiety, or post-traumatic stress injury (PTSI)) if they come through it at all. However, when they face adversity with the necessary Wellness Capital, they come out the other side of hardship stronger and more resilient.

Proof that training that builds Wellness Capital works

In 2021, the National Emergency Number Association (NENA) partnered with Pathfinder Resilience to provide wellness training in California (USA) through the CA POST Distant Learning Grant Program. The training was called Navigating Adversity. Sworn law enforcement officers, 911 emergency dispatchers, and professional staff from police agencies around the state completed the 16-hour online course. This training builds Wellness Capital and reduces adverse symptoms. The results were mind-blowing.

More than 2,000 public safety personnel, including 500-plus 911 professionals, participated in the Navigating Adversity training program over an eight-week period. The online training covered wellness across all eight dimensions: psychological, physical, spiritual, emotional, cognitive, financial, professional, and social. Students engaged in a self-assessment during the first week and took a final assessment 30 days after completion of the training. These assessments provide scores for Wellness Capital, Adverse Symptoms, and Whole-life Enhancement.

Significant improvements were seen across all three groups of students. However, 911 emergency dispatchers saw the most significant gains:

  • Sworn officers saw a 26% reduction in Adverse Symptoms. The 911 emergency dispatchers’ reduction was 36%.
  • Sworn officers had an improvement of 35% in Wellness Capital. The 911 emergency dispatchers improved by 44%.
  • 911 emergency dispatchers realized a 78% improvement in Whole-life Enhancement.
  • A 17% greater increase compared to the sworn officers, who improved by 61%.

The growth in overall wellness by the sworn officers and professional staff is nothing to blink at. Those increases are statistically significant, but the training had a greater impact on the 911 emergency dispatchers. NENA’s wellness training efforts in California in 2021 revealed that positive wellness results can be achieved if an effort is focused on what works: quality wellness training.