START THE NEW YEAR RIGHT
February 6, 2012
By Lora L. Reed, Ph.D.
The wellness of emergency dispatchers is paramount to the profession. Dispatchers are the first in the chain to set into motion a series of vital activities that coordinate the efforts of other responders, individuals, and communities. They are intuitively caring individuals, which is often reflected in their level of wellness. In fact, at times their wellness becomes an issue only after it has affected the employee’s health, his or her team’s performance, and the agency’s bottom line. Clearly, it is wiser to be proactive about dispatcher wellness than to treat employee illness resulting from inattention to their environment.
In tough economic times dispatchers work with tighter budgets, increased occupational demands, and overly-stressed callers. Like employees in most other occupations, emergency dispatchers are increasingly obliged to do more despite ever-shrinking resources. But unlike employees in most other industries, their work directly impacts individuals and communities under mounting economic and environmental demands.
At worst, dispatcher fatigue, ready-alert status, and burnout are potential contributors to slower responses, missed or mishandled calls, and a diminished sense of employee wellness. Where possible, these circumstances should be addressed proactively by employing a full complement of dispatchers (rather than using costly mandatory overtime), encouraging employees to take breaks and meals away from the console, and ensuring stress management strategies are shared and used throughout the agency.
Rarely knowing the outcome of actions also affects dispatcher wellness. In a recent national study (Reed 2010), the majority of communications center employees (87.6%) indicated that rarely, if ever, did they learn of outcomes of their emergency call efforts. One avenue for improving morale, a key to employee wellness, is to share call outcomes—small victories and losses—whenever possible. This helps to build and sustain an organizational culture of shared leadership and respect. It can contribute to employee wellness and employee retention.
Further, communications center respondents in the same study (82.9%) indicated their occupations often involve caring for peers in the workplace (Reed 2010). In terms of employee wellness, caring for peers demonstrates recognition of the need for empathy in an organization. Empathy can be developed through opportunities for shared leadership and employee empowerment, such as participation in employee wellness initiatives, wellness committees, and peer mentoring programs.
The tendency to look out for peers is already in place as a best practice in many communications centers. It is part of a workplace attitude that can be developed into a caring and ethical organizational culture—and expressed as employee wellness. It can be enhanced by introduction to and development of Emotional Intelligence (EI) strategies. EI is an intelligence that helps individuals to better understand their own emotions and the emotions of others. It can be a tremendous asset to high-performance work teams such as those found in communications centers.
Dispatchers work in an occupational environment conducive to stress, worry, and high employee turnover. According to an Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials study, factors affecting dispatcher job satisfaction include appreciation by management, effective mentoring processes, and appreciation by immediate supervisor. These factors might also be addressed through implementation of shared leadership in an employee wellness program.
Many studies tout benefits of employee wellness initiative as cost effective in improved organizational performance, increased job satisfaction, retention, morale, and organizational commitment. And, many free resources exist for agency adaptation. For example, the program FitTogether describes wellness programs as efforts that provide access, opportunity, support, and encouragement for employees to actively participate as individuals or groups. The FitTogether website provides a workplace wellness (assessment) gauge and low-to-no-cost resources for individuals and/or groups to implement and evaluate. These include smoking cessation, weight and nutrition management, exercise programs, and stress management strategies. Conversely, inattention to increased stressors under ever-changing environmental and economic conditions can adversely affect employees who have been trying to change behaviors such as smoking, weight and nutrition management, and exercise regimes.
Engaging employees in shared wellness initiatives and enlisting employee support enhances individual and organizational wellness, job satisfaction, and retention, and demonstrates exemplary leadership and ethical organizational culture. Wellness initiatives can reframe a difficult situation into a shared organizational challenge.
1. Wade 2011 http://www.ehow.com/info_8146906_stress-factors-dispatch-center.html 2. FitTogether (http://www.fittogethernc.org/WorkplaceWellnessAbout.aspx)