A 911 dispatch room is a frontline service even though it is sometimes considered backroom work. The staff encounter people when they make that initial 911 call and listen to harrowing details over the phone. They have to get information from distressed folk and pass those details to a 911 crew so that the problem can be dealt with in a timely way. And sometimes this gets to people, even to those who have done the job for lots of years and have significant experience. Here’s how to recognize the signs of burnout in a colleague and how to support them effectively.

Understanding Burnout

One of the first steps to recognizing burnout is understanding what it is. A burnt out person is someone who shows no further enthusiasm for their work because they have worked too hard or someone who shows the signs of this state. Burnout is also described as a light going out- and this is a good analogy for describing that situation when someone runs out of energy. The important thing is to understand that this can happen to anyone at any time. This does not mean that someone is a failure or crazy, but means they need support to get through a difficult phase.

In 911 dispatchers, stress can manifest from long hours dealing with very traumatic calls. Exposure to this type of work leads to people leaving the job, developing psychological problems, and issues associated with stress.Listening to a phone line where something traumatic is happening such as gunfire- or even silence- can leave its mark on dispatchers as a secondary effect. This is why it is vital to employers and employees that they understand burnout so they can help themselves and others.

Research into 911 dispatchers indicated that whereas post traumatic stress and burnout can manifest after an incident, it has a different pathway in those handling calls. Significantly it builds up over a cumulative period of time. This is a major reason for departments handling 911 calls to have effective systems in place to recognize and support colleagues.

How to Recognize Burnout

There are several ways to recognize burnout and 911 dispatchers are as vulnerable to this problem as anyone else. That’s why colleagues need to be able to recognize signs so they can help at an early stage and in a positive and proactive way. This is not just about someone having a bad day at work but a series of things that build up over time. One of the most fundamental things for a dispatch team to do is look out for each other which helps indicate when someone is not their normal self. Listening to their tone of voice when speaking to someone reveals a lot. Do they sound irritable or are abrupt when speaking to callers or colleagues? Another sign of potential burnout is when someone withdraws from people and isolates themselves by not joining in a conversation or completely shutting themselves off from others. They may be tearful or feel as though they are unable to deal with calls.

Burnout shows itself in other ways too. An affected person may take more time off work than usual.They may have difficulty sleeping at night, leading to irritability and fatigue at work. Some increase their drinking and smoking. A lack of focus and attention is also associated with impending burnout. Some people with burnout signs complain of aches and pains, gastrointestinal upsets, headaches, and even post-viral illnesses. Some people end up really ill with chronic fatigue and even heart conditions as a consequence of the stress build up.

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How to Support A Colleague

Take Simple Steps. Notice what is going on around you in the dispatch office. Has there just been a really difficult call that has upset people? Simply asking how someone is feeling helps. It shows that someone is looking out for them without getting too involved. Say something like: “I noticed that appeared to be a hard call to take. Do you want a short break from the phone?” It gives that person an opportunity to take time out to process what has happened.

If you notice that someone is becoming increasingly irritable and unfocused,talking to them in a quiet area away from the call room gives them space to open up if they want to. Go for a coffee or take a walk round the block.

Offer Debriefing. A 911 dispatch center should have a time and opportunity for a debrief, especially when a tough call has come in. Sometimes the entire team needs time to process something, especially after a major incident. Supervisors must be able to recognize this need and ensure that debriefing is built into the normal day to day operational policies in a 911 dispatch center. Debriefing gives people the space to talk, think, and learn from what happened but crucially it enables an open culture. It is a proactive culture that sends a message to colleagues that it is ok and a natural reaction to be upset about a call, but there is support available.

Give Space to Think. As part of general health and wellbeing in the dispatch center, all staff should have training in mindfulness techniques and breathing exercises. A big cause of stress and burnout in a 911 dispatch center is when the mind wanders and creates the what if scenario. By call handlers being trained in techniques to focus the mind, this additional burden is reduced. 911 dispatchers need to take their breaks and ensure they book out their entire allocation of vacation time. Enabling downtime creates a break from constant stress in the workplace.

Enable Access to Professional Support. Sometimes a friendly chat or a mindfulness session is not sufficient. Colleagues may need professional counseling, support from clinical psychology, and even treatment for alcoholism. 911 dispatch departments must have access to these professional services so they can provide support to colleagues affected by the nature of the work. They need to work in partnership with the employee’s doctor, but being able to access a support service that is part of an employee benefit is a positive way of getting help to colleagues quickly.

Sometimes the nature of burnout means that people need to move on from the job and work somewhere else. A 911 dispatch center should have access to opportunities for people who need time away from the calls. Rotating staff through departments is another proactive way of preventing burnout.

Celebrate the Successes. There are times when something goes superbly well in a 911 dispatch office. Someone just talked a husband through helping his wife give birth, or they instructed a member of the public to perform CPR. Following up on the positives and celebrating them as colleagues helps remind people why they do the job they love.

Burnout is an issue associated with places like 911 dispatch centers but by implementing proactive ways of supporting staff, this can be reduced and result in a positive working environment.