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Who Decides if You have a Bad Day at Work?


911 Training Institute

Phone lines do not stop ringing; 9-1-1 callers do not have emergencies; radio transmissions feel never-ending.

Co-workers drive you crazy and management creates what feels like silly policies. There is a myriad of factors that contribute to a bad day at work in emergency public-safety due to its unpredictable nature. Those factors marry together and create an unholy union of stress that first-responders battle every day. But if you closely examine the causality of these factors, you will find that it is not public callers, co-workers, or supervisors who decide if you have a bad day at work. On the contrary, it is you.

Public-safety, by its very nature, is stressful, especially in dispatch communications. The public does not call 9-1-1 on good days. Dispatchers are the very first first-responders, answering emergency calls without hesitation. They sort through the ugly mess in the heat of the moment of emergencies and orchestrate that chaos for field response. It can be challenging, to say the least, trying to calm a hysterical caller during an emergency when seconds matter. Police officers, firefighters, and EMTs arrive at horrific scenes, take control, make it safe, and provide the best care. The high volume of public calls for service is a major stressor. However, not all stressors in public-safety originate from external factors, such as emergency calls from the general public. There are also internal sources of stress that originate within public-safety agencies.

Shift work is challenging. Working long, irregular hours on weekends and holidays is the norm for first-responders. Dispatchers huddling together in small, dark communication centers; police officers stuck in the driver’s seat of their patrol units; firefighters and EMTs lodging together in cramped living quarters. Since the Great Recession in the late 2000’s, public-safety agencies have suffered from budget cuts that have impacted all areas of operations. Old equipment has not been replaced and retired personnel have left vacant positions that have not been filled. The employees who survived these cutbacks have been forced to work short-staffed with less than desirable equipment. Overtime was once a desired luxury, but now it is despised because it is often mandated. The old saying, “less is more”, is a hated cliché in public-safety because many employees feel like they are required to work additional duties/responsibilities to pick up the slack of vacated positions without decreasing the high volume or quality of their work.

These internal and external stressors make for tough days at work in public-safety. No argument there. But do you, as a front-line first-responder, have any control over these stressors? No. You do not have any control over the projected annual budget, how money will be allocated to operations, the length of time it will take to hire new personnel, the policy that requires you to wear black crew-cut socks, the number of calls for service you will answer/respond to during your shift, what types of calls for service those will be, or even how those public callers will treat you. All of these stressors are out of your personal control; and yet, many of you in public-safety find yourselves anxious and frustrated, constantly worrying about things out of your control. It may start as mild anxiety, but it can lead to severe irritability over time that can impact your work performance and personal wellness. Sometimes you point the finger blaming these stressors for a bad day at work. Ironically, you unknowingly overlook the one thing you do have control over: yourself.

You may not have control over perceived silly policies, crazy coworkers, or calls for service. However, you do have control over your reactions to those stressors, and those reactions shape your attitude. You can choose to have a positive attitude, or a negative attitude. The one thing in public-safety you can control. This should make your Type-A personality happy as a first-responder because it means you do maintain some control regarding your outlook in a career field that is otherwise wildly unpredictable.

Of course, it is not always easy to choose to have a positive attitude. It is easy to let all the stress dictate your reactions and attitude, thereby determining what kind of day you will have at work. It is so much easier just to moan and complain about the above stressors and become complacent. But simple complacency can evolve into a very smug attitude that can spread like a virus, infecting all of your coworkers, and having significant impacts on individual job satisfaction and organizational wellness. It diminishes team morale; it minimizes your overall health and well-being.

On the other hand, a positive attitude is equally contagious. Hold on now, let’s be real… not everyday is sunshine and rainbows in public-safety. There are some very terrible, bad days. So, this is not to suggest that you should manufacture false positivity to mask real thoughts and feelings in reaction to trauma that need to be processed. That forgery of positivity can do more harm to others by making them feel completely invalidated. But genuine positivity shared appropriately can be powerful.

A positive attitude looks at the same stressors above, but through a different lens with understanding that there are some stressors in public-safety that cannot be controlled. Logic tells us it is self-defeating to worry yourself to utter frustration over things you cannot control. Looking at stressors through a lens of positivity shows you may not have control, but you might have influence. First-responders serving on the front-lines might not have control over leadership decisions made by command staff or management, but they can compassionately wonder why decisions were made and how to strategically and constructively influence change. Furthermore, a positive attitude is empowering; it improves morale and work productivity.

No one said it will be easy. It takes effort to view things through a positive lens, especially in public-safety where first-responders battle chronic exposure to very unique stressors. But those stressors do not rob first-responders of their power to choose. Who decides if you have a bad day at work? You do. Choose to be positive; choose to have a good day at work.

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