Taking Control Of Your Health
February 6, 2023
Throughout history, humans have stood or squatted during daily tasks and activities. But the socialized advent of chairs and their later introduction into the workplace in the 1940s, as well as technology—especially computers—has changed things.
Look no further than emergency dispatch centers. Working in emergency dispatch involves long periods of sitting, often without breaks or other physical activity. Emergency dispatchers may work various schedules ranging from 8- to 12-hour shifts, sometimes with additional scheduled or emergency overtime, that also span evenings, weekends, and holidays. Add to that the long periods of boredom punctuated by the chaos of multiple crisis calls during staff shortages, and the work of emergency dispatchers has been rated as one of the most stressful jobs in America, according to O*NET1; they rated the stress 97 out of 100.
But that doesn’t tell the whole story. Inactivity at work is typically followed by more inactivity—sitting for the drive home followed by more sitting once home because the emergency dispatcher is often too tired to exercise. They might watch television, read, eat, or catch up on email or social media via an electronic device. This could mean sitting for at least 14-16 hours a day.
Emergency dispatchers are usually drawn to the job because they want to make a difference in people’s lives at a critical time, the excitement and variety of people encountered is interesting, and they are contributing to their community. However, the stress that comes from being constantly alert, monitoring multiple connections, staying calm while responding to critical calls, feeling tired from shiftwork, and enduring prolonged sitting contributes to the risk of burnout and turnover in the field at 15-20%.2
Although the stressful nature of emergency calls cannot be controlled, being aware of the adverse effects of prolonged sitting can bring motivation to change work habits that can be controlled.
Let’s understand the physical and psychological effects of sedentary activity and then look at what we can do about it.
Inactivity tends to first affect us physically. The sedentary nature of sitting for hours tends to round the shoulders, compress the body, bend the legs, and often induces hunching forward—all are additional strains on the body. Medical research shows how prolonged sitting is related to various health conditions including high blood sugar, abnormal cholesterol, poor blood circulation, higher blood pressure, increase in midsection body fat, and insomnia. Other physical effects can include deformation in blood vessels, varicose veins, swelling of the legs, joint and muscle pain, back pain, and damage to tendons and ligaments.3,4,5
Workers sitting beyond eight hours a day have about the same level of health risk for obesity and smoking.6 Furthermore, sitting close to a monitor requires close visual attention and can cause eye strain and fatigue, blurred vision, dry eyes, and headaches. Years of sedentary behavior and its effects on organs and the immune system can compound and lead to health risks including cancer, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease.7
The role of the emergency dispatcher is stressful enough with the pressure of responsibility without control. The continued stress of dealing with the thoughts and emotions of the last call, not knowing when the next call might come in, not knowing if there is time for a bathroom break or a meal, and so on creates a constant arousal. The fatigue of prolonged sitting adds to our stress by dulling our cognitive and emotional abilities at a time when these are crucial to emergency call resolution. Cognitive effects can include delays in recalling information, verbal fluency, memory, and attention.8 Common stress symptoms from prolonged sitting include anxiety, depression, loneliness, and reduced feelings of well-being in general,9 as well as moodiness, irritability, and anger. These emotions can also complicate family and social interactions and co-worker relationships.10
Mitigating sedentary stress
Sedentary activity can easily become a norm in the workplace and with personal habits too. It’s a challenging thing to change. While motivation that comes from the fear of developing a health problem tends to work for a short time, sedentary activity is a cultural norm for many of us and requires a rethinking of our health habits and lifestyle.
Exercise and other physical activity can be very effective in reducing anxiety, depression, and negative mood.11,12,13 It can improve short-term memory and decision-making throughout the day,14 as well as promote better sleep. Emergency dispatchers with limited mobility can exercise from a wheelchair with upper limb exercises that have also been shown to improve cardiac and respiratory fitness.15 Here are other recommendations for reducing sedentary stress.
- Look into reframing—thinking of a concern from a different perspective. As noted previously, fear of poor health can be a short-term motivator, but thinking about, visualizing, and experiencing the emotions of what you can do once you have more energy can be a longer-term motivator. It’s easier to run toward something you desire because you have a future benefit in mind. You might recall how you felt and what you were able to do before you were as sedentary. What would you be able to do with a partner, spouse, children, and friends? How would you look in a mirror? What would you have time and energy to do that you haven’t done? How good would that feel?
- Take a short break from sitting at least every hour. Do a brief series of stretches for legs, back, shoulders, and neck. Perform some mild exercises like squats, pushups, elastic band stretches, stair stepping, etc. Online videos can demonstrate these simple stretches and exercises but check the credentials of the person presenting that information.
- If you work at a desk, try a standing desk or improvise with a high table or counter for your monitor. Stand while talking on the phone or watching media on a computer, phone, or television.
- Walk with your co-workers to meetings and use the stairs rather than taking an elevator.
- Position your work surface above an under desk bike pedal or elliptical exerciser, which can be low cost and allow continuous exercise while sitting. A stationary treadmill with a computer screen and keyboard on a stand or a specialized treadmill-ready vertical desk also allows you to be in motion throughout the day.
- Stand on a mat or “balance cushion” that allows some cushion for shifting back and forth with your weight. The shifting creates a sort of “foot pump” for promoting blood circulation while standing.
- The “20-20-20 Rule”: Every 20 minutes look away from the monitor off into the distance (at least 20 feet) for 20 seconds to reduce eye strain.
- If you prefer a more organized approach or working out with friends, join a Pilates or yoga class or find such exercises online to counter the adverse effects of prolonged sitting.
- If you already have some health issues or significant discomfort, consult with an exercise physiologist or physical therapist for an exercise and stretching prescription that is customized to your needs.
The role of emergency dispatch is an essential part of our emergency response system and carries high responsibilities with corresponding risk and stress. In addition to the nature of calls and shiftwork are the physiological and psychological effects of prolonged sitting. This sedentary activity can produce short-term strains as well as potential long-term disorders.
However, there are many methods for reducing such stress at the personal level by practicing periodic breaks, stretches, and exercises, and at the organizational level by supporting these resiliency practices. Such changes in habits and work culture take time to implement, but they can help committed emergency dispatchers keep doing the work they so strongly value and to which they contribute.
- “Stress Tolerance.” Occupational Information Network (O*NET). 2022. https://www.onetonline.org/find/descriptor/result/1.C.4.b (accessed July 8, 2022).
- Wallen C. “Emergency dispatch centers facing labor shortages.” 2021: Oct. 4. https://spectrumlocalnews.com/nc/charlotte/news/2021/10/04/emergency-dispatch-centers-facing-labor-shortage#:~:text=The%20National%20Emergency%20Number%20Association,15%2D20%25%20employee%20turnover (accessed July 8, 2022).
- “Working in a Sitting Position - Overview.” Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety (CCOHS). 2022; Sept. 28. https://www.ccohs.ca/oshanswers/ergonomics/sitting/sitting_overview.html (accessed July 8, 2022).
- Kallings LV, Blom V, Ekblom B, et al. “Workplace sitting is associated with self-reported general health and back/neck pain: a cross-sectional analysis in 44,978 employees.” BMC Public Health. 2021; May 6. https://doi.org/10.1186/s12889-021-10893-8 (accessed July 8, 2022).
- Maffetone P. “Sitting Stress.” MAF Institute. 2015; May 1. https://philmaffetone.com/sitting-stress/# (accessed July 8, 2022).
- Laskowski ER. “What are the risks of sitting too much?” Mayo Clinic. 2022; July 13. https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/adult-health/expert-answers/sitting/faq-20058005 (accessed July 8, 2022).
- Yang L, Chao C, Kantor ED, et al. “Trends in Sedentary Behavior Among the US Population, 2001-2016.” JAMA. PMC PubMed Central. 2019; April 23. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6487546/ (accessed July 8, 2022).
- Falck RS, Davis JC, & Liu-Ambrose T. “What is the association between sedentary behaviour and cognitive function? A systematic review.” British Journal of Sports Medicine. 2017; May 2. https://bjsm.bmj.com/content/51/10/800 (accessed July 8, 2022).
- Pears M, Kola-Palmer S, De Azevedo LB. “The impact of sitting time and physical activity on mental health during COVID-19 lockdown.” Sport Sciences for Health. 2021; June 10. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11332-021-00791-2 (accessed July 8, 2022).
- Belmonte E, Camaro A, Demar DJ, Timm A. “The impact of 911 telecommunications on family and social interactions.” Gov1. Lexipol. 2020; Feb. 5. https://www.gov1.com/emergency-management/articles/the-impact-of-911-telecommunications-on-family-and-social-interactions-t4fHEXWZMJCLfPdz/ (accessed July 8, 2022).
- Pelletier L, Shanmugasegaram S, Patten SB, Demers A. “Self-management of mood and/or anxiety disorders through physical activity/exercise.” Health Promotion and Chronic Disease Prevention in Canada. 2017; May. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/28493659/ (accessed July 8, 2022).
- Kandola A, Vancampfort D, Herring M, et al. “Moving to Beat Anxiety: Epidemiology and Therapeutic Issues with Physical Activity for Anxiety.” Current Psychiatry Reports. 2018; July 24. https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007%2Fs11920-018-0923-x (accessed July 8, 2022).
- Parker AG, Hetrick SE, Jorm AF, et al. “The effectiveness of simple psychological and physical activity interventions for high prevalence mental health problems in young people: A factorial randomised controlled trial.” Journal of Affective Disorders. 2016; Feb. 23. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/26926659/ (accessed July 8, 2022).
- Wheeler MJ, Green DJ, Ellis KA, et al. “Distinct effects of acute exercise and breaks in sitting on working memory and executive function in older adults: a three-arm, randomised cross-over trial to evaluate the effects of exercise with and without breaks in sitting on cognition.” British Journal of Sports Medicine. 2019; April 29. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/31036563/ (accessed July 8, 2022).
- Ellapen TJ, Hammill HV, Swanepoel M, Strydom GL. “The health benefits and constraints of exercise therapy for wheelchair users: A clinical commentary.” African Journal of Disability. 2017; Sept. 8. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5594262/ (accessed July 8, 2022).
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