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The Stress at Both Ends of the Phone: Burn Out and Empathy Fatigue

Author: Renée Gendron, MA

Copyright: 9-1-1 Magazine, Feature Content

Date: 2015-03-11
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The phone rings. It gets promptly answered. The voice on the other end oscillates from terrified to panic. The operator does their best to collect important information and keep the caller calm as first responders are dispatched. Unknown noise in the background rattles the caller and breaks their calm. Again, the dispatcher works to keep the caller as calm as possible. The distressed person’s breathing is shallow and rapid, their voice cracks. The phone is dropped. Hurried footsteps lead away from the telephone. The 9-1-1 telecommunicator is left to listen as closely and attentively as possible to glean details as to what is happening. A quick check with the emergency services notes that the ambulance won’t arrive for another few minutes. The caller returns excitedly to the phone, the situation has gotten worse. They’re on the verge of collapse from stress and fright. Again the call-taker does their best to keep them focused on taking appropriate measures to keep the injured party alert. The ambulance crew arrives and takes over. The 9-1-1 call-taker proceeds to the next call.

The call might be over but the stress from it lingers. The uncertainty of its resolution to the 9-1-1 call-taker carries over into the next call. When new on the job, it was easy to clear the thoughts and cobwebs from the dispatcher’s mind. The more calls the dispatcher took, it seemed that the ability to wipe the slate clean between calls diminished. When the dispatcher went home, the frustration and anxiety of the day stayed longer. The longer the dispatcher worked, the more the dispatcher’s body anticipated the stress of the day. While watching television or commuting home, sudden waves of panic or distress washed over the dispatcher’s body. Nights transitioned into sleepless intervals between shifts. Mornings aired flashbacks of yesterday’s calls in anticipation of today’s. Weeks of this behavior turned into months. The telecommunicator became irritable and increasingly short-tempered with colleagues, family, and callers. And then the day came when the dispatcher simply couldn’t answer the phone. The end of the rope had been reached.  The dispatcher was suffering from a burn out.

A second telecommunicator went through a very similar process.  This one started the job with the intention of helping people. As the volume of calls taken increased, some of the situations requiring help were very distressing. A few of the calls were so depraved that they stuck with the dispatcher, whose hair started to fall out from stress and whose appetite changed dramatically resulting  in excessive weight gain. Years into the job, the second dispatcher became very cold and distant, indifferent to the suffering and pain of the callers. To friends and family, the dispatcher transitioned into someone who was quite jaded and uncaring. In short, this dispatcher was suffering from empathy fatigue. 

In an online article on “The Dispatcher and the Victim” for Dispatch Monthly, Millie Miller noted that dispatchers who feel too much stress are likely to experience the following symptoms: stomach aches, headaches, feeling sad, scared, nervous and/or worried. An ABC News article dated July 7 2014 chronicled the emotional stress felt by many 9-1-1 dispatchers throughout the United States and Canada. The toll on the operators is very real. Some of the operators interviewed by ABC were diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). 

Burn out and empathy fatigue happen in similar circumstances but have different symptoms. A burn out is a condition in which the person worked so hard at near-peak production or efficiency that they lose touch with themselves. They immerse themselves in their work to the point where they become exhausted. In a 2014 article published by Bianchi and Laurent suggested that burn out shares many of the structural characteristics of depression. Empathy fatigue occurs when a person consistently feels the pain and suffering of another. Boundaries between two or more individuals become blurred and the person suffering from empathy fatigue has great trouble distinguishing between their emotions and that of another. Over time, the person experiencing empathy fatigue losses compassion and empathy for others. They become quite cold and indifferent to the suffering of those around them.

Knowing these challenges to the job, what can be done to equip operators and help them address the stress?

  • Agree with the statement that each person, including the operator, has the right to be respected as an individual and engage in leisure activities without feeling bad or guilty.
  • Intentionally make the time during the day and the week to engage in activities that reduce stress.
  • People are drawn to become 9-1-1 call-takers and dispatchers because they want to help others. Sometimes somewhere along the line, the dispatcher loses themselves in their service. Becoming more assertive in their needs is one method of ensuring that the dispatcher receives appropriate support. Recognizing that there is a legitimate right to take time for them and to identify and articulate that the operator needs X in order to maintain balance. Helping others does not mean that the operator ignores their own personal needs and interests.
  • Being aware of and practice the difference between sympathy and empathy. Sympathy means that the operator feels another person’s pain. Empathy means that they respect their own emotions while recognizing the separate and unique emotions of another.

Renée Gendron is an engaging speaker, creative mediator, published researcher, and dynamic trainer. She applies her SMRT services in support of professionals and organizations seeking to maximize their impact. Renée welcomes feedback and can be reached at @vitaedynamics, renee@vitaedynamics, her website: www.vitaedynamics.com, on Facebook and Google+ .

 

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