There is an important body of research focused on stress and trauma in police officers and other emergency service first responders.
However, despite the fact that a police communicator — more commonly known by the North American public as a police dispatcher or 911 operator — is likely involved in the vast majority of events that contribute to stress and trauma in the emergency services, the trauma they experience has been largely overlooked in the stress and emotion research with first responders.
As part of their regular working shift, communicators experience many occupational stressors that are similar to those of other emergency responders. In addition, they are subject to other stressors related to their specific work environment.
For instance, a cramped workspace, restricted ability to move from their workstations, regulated washroom and other breaks and, at busier times, a rapid succession of calls with little opportunity for disengaging, suggest constrained physical conditions. Technological aspects of their work may also lead to feelings of isolation.
The lack of physical presence at scenes without systematic feedback on the outcome of calls may prevent closure and create a sense of powerlessness for communicators. Concentrated organizational oversight in the form of guidelines for appropriate behaviour, the potential for legal and public scrutiny, and the routine recording and logging of performance may add layers to the occupational stressors that communicators experience.
Perhaps not surprisingly, emotions in the workplace are commonly set aside in favour of rational ways of being. Anecdotally, communicators consistently characterize their work as a process of removing emotion from the situation.
They work to gain control of the call, calm the callers and retrieve the pertinent information in spite of any emotional subject matter. This is common to many emergency service contexts which call for emotional neutrality or detached concern.
However, police communications is an inherently emotional profession. The research of Tracey and Tracey (1998) identified that communicators are routinely required to simultaneously manage their own emotions while evaluating and managing the emotions of callers and their co-workers. Much of the work communicators do and many of the decisions they make are infused with and shaped by emotion and emotional interactions with others.
This type of emotional work, referred to by Hochschild (2003) as "the managed heart," often remains invisible in the eyes of organizations, management and the public. It is regularly ignored, taken for granted and rarely regarded as a significant source of on-the-job distress by employers.
Impact of communications work
Several studies have demonstrated that people in professions that require higher levels of emotion work report higher levels of stress, depression, anxiety, emotional exhaustion, burnout and ill health.
The intense emotional efforts and persistent social interactions of communications work may leave communicators at increased risk for negative physical and mental health outcomes.
Recent research such as that by Pierce and Lilly (2012) has shown that trauma-related symptoms in response to critical events are higher among communicators than in officers and other civilians.
Our research group conducted a simulation study that aimed to look at the relationships between various manifestations of distress — such as psychological distress, physiological stress as measured by cortisol, the stress hormone — and subjective experiences of stress and other factors that influence the ability to manage during critical events — such as coping strategies, social supports, and locus of control, otherwise known as a sense of personal control (Regehr, et al, 2013).
We recruited 113 Canadian police communicators, from both urban and rural communications centres, who were employed by both municipal and provincial police services on both a full-time and part-time contract basis. Of those, 87 per cent were women, 59 per cent were married and 81 per cent had some college or university education.
We found that 31 per cent of participants had symptoms of traumatic stress that met a conservative diagnostic cut-off for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). This rate is considerably greater than that of female and male officers and the general population.
The longer employees had been on the job, the more symptoms of trauma they reported. Fifteen per cent of the sample reported mild to moderate depression but levels of anxiety were low compared to the general public.
Cortisol — or stress hormone — levels were similar to levels found in other high-stress jobs such as emergency department nurses and experienced paramedics but were unrelated to other measures of distress.
The lasting effects of acutely stressful incidents make the relationship between cortisol and momentary subjective experiences of stress difficult to map out in what can be a repeatedly stressful environment.
An internal locus of control — or a sense of personal control — over what goes on in the world around us has been shown to be protective when dealing with stressful situations. Those who are able to maintain a sense of control in traumatic circumstances are more effective at coping with those experiences. Communicators who reported a higher sense of personal control also reported lower levels of anxiety and depression.
Participants also reported high levels of social support compared to other occupational groups and the general public.
While social support is generally found to reduce stress and trauma symptoms (Regehr, 2009), some recent research by Farnsworth and Sewel (2011) suggests that fear of emotion — the idea that intense emotional experiences will end in a loss of self-control — is a stronger predictor of PTSD than lack of social support.
The influence of emotions on work is complex. On one hand, emotion may be related to the most rewarding or positive aspects of emergency service work. That is, the work can be experienced as exciting, interesting and fulfilling.
On the other hand, emotion can be disruptive both for the individual and in interactions with the public and colleagues (LeBlanc, et al. 2011; Regehr et al., 2008). As the first point of contact, communicators' exposure to traumatic circumstances is direct and has real immediate, long-term and far-reaching consequences. At a personal level, emotional work takes a toll physiologically, psychologically and relationally.
Healthy organizations can create a climate that both recognizes emotion-related efforts as a valued skill of emergency service work and assists workers in using emotions effectively for the benefit of the public, others in the organization, and themselves.
Arija Birze is a PhD student at the University of Toronto's Dalla Lana School of Public Health and a recipient of the Wilson Centre's Currie Fellowship.
Dr. Cheryl Regehr is vice-president and provost of the University of Toronto and a professor at its Factor-Inwentash Faculty of Social Work & Institute for Medical Sciences.
Dr. Vicki LeBlanc is chair of and associate professor at the University of Ottawa's Department of Innovation in Medical Education.
Hochschild, W. (2003). The managed heart: The recognition of emotional labour in public service work. Nurse Education Today, 2013. 33 (1): p. 5-7.
Pierce, H. and M.Lilly, Duty-related trauma exposure in 911 telecommunicators: Considering the risk for posttraumatic stress. Journal of Traumatic Stress, 2012. 25 (2): p. 211-215.
LeBlanc, V. et al., The association between posttraumatic stress, coping, and acute stress responses in paramedics. Traumatology, 2011. 17 (4): p. 10.
Regehr, C. (2009). Social support as a mediator of psychological distress in firefighters. Irish Journal of Psychology. 30 (1) 85-96.
Regehr, C. et al. (2008). Acute stress and performance in police recruits. Stress and Health. 24(3) 295-303.
Regehr, C., et al. Predictors of physiological stress and psychological distress in police communicators. Police Practice and Research, 2013. 14 (6) : p. 451-463.
Tracy, S.J. and K. Tracy. Emotion labor at 911: A case study and theoretical critique. Journal of Applied Communication Research, 1998. 26 (4): p. 390-411.