By Shawn Messinger
As I’m writing this we’re in the full swing of summer and with it the usual uptick in call volume, accidents, and annual leave requests. This can be a particularly stressful time for both staff and supervisors in communication centers. The heat seems to bring out the “crazy” in everyone; couple that with alcohol and drugs and the proverbial pot is ripe for boiling over. What better time to initiate a plan for personal stress management?
Outside friends and interests—positive influences—are important aspects of our lives that I always cover in the Dispatch Stress sections of a certification course. As pointed out in a favorite book of mine: Emotional Survival for Law Enforcement by Kevin Gilmartin, a behavioral scientist specializing in issues related to law enforcement, these are the things that keep us whole, sane, and human. His goal in writing the book was to assist officers and their families in maintaining and improving quality of life amidst the mayhem of the profession. The same applies to emergency communications.
Dr. Gilmartin prefaces his advice in pointing out the differences among people in our career choice, compared to professions outside law enforcement. A major personality trait is our tendency to pull back from friends, family, and activities in exchange for a life dominated by careers. This is not done on purpose; it just happens. When we start in emergency services, we are excited about our new career and, consequently, the focus of our lives changes. We put work first, which is only natural and, in many ways, a good thing. We are eager to learn, excel, and prove ourselves to bosses and coworkers.
Our new careers also affect our daily schedules. We don’t often work the same hours as others. By necessity, we work afternoons, nights, holidays, weekends, and whenever needed, even if not scheduled. Before we know it we have not seen our friends for months or years, except when we pass carts at the supermarket. We miss our kids’ soccer games, birthday parties, and dance recitals because we are too busy working or trying to catch up on sleep. We begin hanging out with police officers, dispatchers, paramedics, and fire fighters who have similar shifts and understand our sometimes macabre sense of humor. These new friends are not bad for us, and our service to our community is honorable, but there within lies the problem: Eventually we let the profession take over our lives.
This is where Dr. Gilmartin’s advice comes in: We must make an effort to maintain our relationships with old friends and family to balance our lives.
Long-time friendships established prior to the job and family keep us grounded in who we are, not just what we do. They are the ones who know us best and can see when the “job” is affecting us negatively. Coincidentally, they are often the same people with the guts to bring up issues that might be worrisome although not obvious to us or our fellow law enforcement associates. A favorite quote of mine is from George Herbert: “The best mirror is an old friend.”
Dr. Gilmartin’s second piece of advice involves spending time doing what is truly enjoyable: the activities we loved prior to law enforcement. It’s not unusual to drop activities we once enjoyed, blaming it on our schedules and being “tired” from a week of working nights. Try making a list of activities enjoyed pre-emergency services and a list of activities enjoyed during the past three months. How do they compare? Are there any activities left over from the not-so distant past?
The best advice is taking stock and retooling, especially when the person you used to be is fading away. Go to the neighborhood barbeque. Get tickets for you and a friend to attend a ball game. Schedule a date night. If you have kids, ask them what they’d like to do on your evening off. Make eating dinner out with a close friend a monthly routine. Break out the fishing pole, bicycle, camping gear, or whatever equipment it takes to refresh the quality of your life. And keep your promises—the promises you make to family and friends and yourself.
You might be surprised how much adjusting the focus of your life and rebalancing it helps at work. We need time to unplug the headset, take off the gun belt, or put away the stethoscope to regain the person and lose the shadow.