Sometimes you just need a break. Stress can creep up on you when you least expect it, and then all of a sudden you’re on the verge of breaking something out of frustration. We’ve all been there. During one of my shifts, I kindly suggested that maybe it was time for my coworker to take a break. I still don’t know exactly what happened to prompt the string of not so professional words that came spewing out like pea soup from my coworker’s mouth. After dodging the darts that nearly took off my head, she took a short walk around the building and came back with a much better attitude.
My agency currently works 12-hour shifts. My supervisors are very good at making sure that everyone gets their breaks in during their tour of duty. They even have it in our SOP’s to make sure that our break and meals times are taken away from the communications center. They know that it’s important for us to disengage ourselves from our work in order to be alert and fresh for our brothers and sisters on the road. It’s so important to be on top of your game in our profession.
On the other hand, I’ve also worked for an agency where staffing was so limited that you were lucky to get a bathroom break—much less a lunch break. Many times I found myself in the bathroom with a portable radio just hoping nothing happened while I pulled up my britches and washed my hands before I went running down the hall back into the radio room, yelling, “I’m here! I’m here!” One shift actually got to hear the toilet flushing as I asked them to “stand by” and forgot to un-key the microphone. Oops. Those were the days! I look back on those years and wonder how we even survived. Oh yeah, now I remember: Slurpees and leftover pizza that patrol would bring us in between calls.
So much has changed since then. We know now the long term effects of long hours, little sleep, bad food and no exercise. In the public safety field, we could have saved the government tons of money in research many, many years ago. We ran on coffee, sugar and cigarettes for goodness sakes! And some of us still do! Stress? What’s stress? We live for those action-packed moments that would give the normal person nightmares. It has nothing to do with my high blood pressure and chronic headaches. I won’t bore you with the statistics; we’ve all heard it before. The bottom line: Like it or not, ladies and gentlemen, public safety jobs are stressful.
Dealing with the Stress
So, here’s my question and this is the same question that I’ve been asking since the day I started back in 1992: Why oh why, do we add to our own stress? I mean, really, our jobs are filled with so much daily crap already, why should we insist on adding more? We need to remember what our job responsibilities are.
I have coworkers that are so wrapped up in what the field units are doing, how long it takes them to get it done and how many calls for service they handle a day. This takes all their energy and focus. Here's a reality check: That’s why the field units have sergeants and lieutenants folks; they look after them.
On the other hand, I have field units that love to throw the telecommunicator under the bus when we make a mistake or typo and announce in a sarcastic tone, “Lee County, I said Lee Street not Lee Blvd!” Comments like that tend to lead to little battles that last throughout the day and sometimes for the rest of the time that unit is on our shift. It’s not what you say, but how you say it guys. Considering the amount of information that goes in and out of a common communications center, it’s amazing we don’t make more mistakes. Both of these examples only add stress to our already stressful profession.
Don’t get me wrong, if there’s a pattern of errors that aren’t being addressed, then by all means, a supervisor or training coordinator might need to step in. And, always if officer safety is at risk, the issue should be handled immediately. But, if a usually competent coworker who rarely makes mistakes starts having more than just an “off day” than maybe someone should look into what’s really going on. A little empathy goes a long way. Just remember everyone has a burden to carry, just some are heavier than others. Someday, it might be you that needs a little understanding and TLC.
The same goes for the field units. Sometimes, they need a little understanding, and they can have off days too. They have to be multi-taskers as well as we do: refereeing the public, interviewing victims, listening to the radio, chasing hot plates, checking their laptops and constantly being aware of their surroundings, all while worrying about their personal safety.
Supervisors, if you notice your people having a hard time, or giving a hard time for that matter, step in and have them take a break. Sometimes, that’s all it takes to fix the problem. Pay attention to your people. If it becomes a pattern, take appropriate action. Sometimes, it’s very distracting and offensive to other people in the room who are working side-by-side with these folks to listen to the rants of an over stressed or disgruntled coworker. You need to realize that most of the time they aren't going to say anything to them or you for fear of retaliation or making the working environment worse. However, the effects on the entire shift can be disastrous if it's left to run amuck. Low morale is like a disease that spreads like wild fire if isn't addressed right away. This is especially critical if you have new hires on your shift. They will pick up on inappropriate conduct right away and will start to believe that this behavior is acceptable if it isn’t corrected in a timely manner.
The bottom line: Take care of yourself by recognizing when you need to step away and take a break. Your mental health is just as important as your physical health and can impact the people around you in a negative way if it’s left unchecked. The second is to be kind to each other. Give your work family a break now and again. You never know when you will be the one that will need a little compassion and understanding.