A new U.K. study finds that stress experienced by emergency call handlers can compromise their long-term psychological well-being, a new report shows.
Those working in this role are the first to receive a traumatic call and are then responsible for making critical decisions in assessing what type of emergency response is required.
Previous research on how stress affects health care workers has largely focused on clinical or front-line professionals; i.e., paramedics and firefighters. However, little is known about how the work demands affect the mental health of the call handlers.
Examining 16 studies from across the world, researchers from the University of Surrey, University of Dundee, Anglia Ruskin University and Kingston University/St George’s, University of London, identified key factors which cause operatives stress and potentially impact on their psychological health.
Exposure to traumatic and abusive calls was found to negatively affect call handlers. Although the dispatchers are not physically exposed to emergency situations, evidence demonstrated that they experienced trauma vicariously.
In one study, participants reported experiencing fear, helplessness, or horror in reaction to 32 percent of the different types of calls that they received.
A key stressor for call handlers was a lack of control over their workload due to the unpredictability of calls and a lack of organizational recognition of the demands of managing their assignments.
One study reported that ambulance dispatchers felt out of control of their workload after returning from rest breaks, so many wound up not taking scheduled breaks, leading to exhaustion.
A lack of high-quality training in dealing with high-pressure calls was identified by some dispatchers as contributing to stress levels. In one instance, police dispatchers reported concern about their performance in handling fluid situations such as robberies in progress or suicidal callers, in case they did not make the correct decisions.
“Call handlers across different emergency services consistently reported their job as highly stressful, which in turn affects their psychological health. This undoubtedly impacts on their overall well-being, leading to increased sickness and time away from work, putting additional strain on the service and their colleagues, said co-author Mark Cropley, a professor in Health Psychology at the University of Surrey.
“Although handlers are not experiencing trauma first-hand, the stress that they experience when responding to such calls should not be overlooked.”
Co-author Professor Patricia Schofield, of Anglia Ruskin University, said, “Call handlers are the front line of emergency care but are often overlooked when it comes to studies about stress affecting the police, fire and ambulance services. This study finds evidence that staff are at risk of burnout, due to high workload, inadequate training, and a lack of control.
“It’s important that these staff are considered and interventions made to ensure that they can cope with their workload — these people make vital decisions which affect lives.”
Another co-author, Professor Tom Quinn from Kingston University & St George’s, University of London, said, “Most people probably don’t recognize the stressful conditions under which emergency call center staff work. Now that we have explored and summarized the evidence to identify the challenges these important staff face, we plan to develop and test interventions to reduce the burden on them and improve their well-being.”
Source: Surrey University