By Kassondra O’Hara, Communications Training Officer, Troy Police Department
For anyone who has worked in an emergency communications center for any length of time, it is generally understood that overtime, shift work, working holidays and weekends and dealing with periods of short staffing is a way of life. Even during the rare moments that a center is fully staffed, the long hours, call-ins and time away from family can be stressful to even the most dedicated of employees. This stress often results in low morale, burnout and health problems.
What about when the dreaded term “understaffed” is being used to describe your agency? In an age where it seems like communication centers across the country are continuously understaffed, the need for trainable personnel who meet the high standards of the job and the retention of current employees is on the top of every center manager’s list. What can communication center supervisors do to effectively operate a center that does not have the needed personnel in an already stressful environment?
Communication center supervisors need to make it a priority to prevent burnout. Preventing burnout will improve morale and ultimately deter more unfilled positions in the future.
The first step in preventing burnout is examining and recognizing the causes. Burnout is a physical and emotional breakdown of an employee that over time can result in pessimism and detachment. Common indicators include:
Recognizing these signs and acting before employees are completely overwhelmed is one of the most important roles that a supervisor can take on.
- Insomnia or difficulty sleeping
- Loss of appetite
- Difficulty concentrating
- Gastrointestinal issues
- Difficulty breathing
Educating employees on what they can do personally to prevent overstress and burnout is extremely important. Giving each dispatcher or call-taker the power to take control of their own professional path is one of the most ideal ways that a manager can help their employees.
Simple things such as reminding them that each call is different and that citizens may be concerned over things that we do not deem as important is one way to help them to continue to identify with callers and prevent emotional numbness. Allowing employees to put forth ideas and opinions that includes them in the center’s decision-making processes often gives them a feeling of being included and needed.
Over time, this will essentially boost the morale of the center. Including all levels of dispatch staff is generally the most effective. Committing time, necessary resources and encouraging positivity throughout the center are significant steps in decreasing burnout and increasing morale.
Speaking of raising morale throughout the communications center, this is honestly the easiest way to reduce turnover and increase employee retention and productivity. Being short staffed is enough to discourage current employees as they realize that it will at least temporarily increase their already overwhelming hours and duties. Managers need to keep in mind that bad attitudes and low morale are highly contagious.
The first step is self-reflection and improvement if necessary. A positive attitude starts at the top and will hopefully spread center-wide. By starting with themselves, communications center supervisors can positively influence and become role models for those under their command. Encouraging employees to take an active role in rediscovering their passion for the job is one of the most imperative aspects of being a communications center supervisor.
The second step is to identify the reasons for low morale. Employees are the best people to shed light on these as they are the ones being affected. What are some of their ideas that would help to increase positivity in their center? Increases in pay, incentive programs, predictable fairness, activities outside the center, access to relevant training and progressive, expected discipline are often complaints heard by many managers. Active listening, communication, and preparedness and willingness to lead are also traits that inspire employees.
Recognition for a job well done is inherently craved by most humans, professional or otherwise. Focusing only on discipline and corrections when something is done incorrectly is the number one way to lower morale amongst employees and create a negative atmosphere in your center.
Picking out incidents that are handled very well, recognizing those employees who consistently go above and beyond their normal duties and/or commending that call-taker or dispatcher who did a phenomenal job on that major call that came in yesterday are ways to make sure that the majority of your employees strive for excellence rather than just doing what they have to in order to avoid reprimand.
Improving morale is one issue while sustaining that morale is a whole other beast. A good manager must strive to continuously take notice of their employees, recognize trends within the center that may indicate a lack of motivation, and most of all, listen.
Listening to current employees’ concerns and opinions and working to compromise or adjust when a problem presents itself is not only a manager’s responsibility, but should be their desire if they wish to be a manager of a center with a consistently high morale and productive work ethic.
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About the Author
Kassondra O’Hara is an Emergency Communications Operator at the Troy Police Department in Troy, AL and has served since 2006. She has functioned as a Communications Training Officer since 2010. She has recently become certified to train regionally through APCO and is currently serving on the IPSA Communications Committee.