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IDENTIFYING THE STRESSORS


March 13, 2014
By Irene Barath

by Irene Barath, Janet Balch, Cheryl Regehr, Vicki R. LeBlanc and Aruja Birze <1>

Professional communications personnel do not need to ‘suck it up’ and ‘just get over it’ any more than police officers do. The Ontario Police College (OPC), in partnership with University of Toronto researchers, has investigated predictors for physiological stress and distress in police communicators.

Police communicators from both rural and urban police services participated in this innovative study. The 113 communicators ranged from 24 to 61 years old and were primarily female [86.7 per cent] which is consistent with workforce demographics. Participants were most often married [59.3 per cent], had post-secondary education [80.6 per cent] and one to 35 years of service, with the mean 12.7 years.

The purposes of this research were multifaceted. First and foremost it allowed the opportunity to recognize the contribution made by communicators in serving their emergency services colleagues and the broader communities where they live and work.

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Secondly, this research provided some much needed insight into the specific stressors related to the profession, including numerous calls, in rapid succession, with some callers in extreme distress. As the first point of contact with police, communicators are not present at the scene and so are sometimes unaware of how a situation is resolved. They are only called upon to send help if things go from bad to worse.

Finally, this research provided some insight for the participants and other emergency services communications personnel into the psychological impact the profession can have on their wellbeing. With awareness comes an opportunity for all communicators to reflect on their current stress management and coping practices and to adopt best practice to optimize their physical and psychological wellness.

One of the most significant findings of this research relates to the impact of emotional coping strategies on the psychological wellness of communications personnel. Those using negative emotion-focused coping strategies, which involve repeatedly worrying, self-blaming and anger (frustration), demonstrate the most trauma symptoms and are at higher risk for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

The good news is that these destructive coping strategies can be replaced with more adaptive approaches through interventions targeting cognitive-behavioural approaches. Beneficial coping strategies include positive emotion-focused, task and avoidant oriented processes.

The other significant finding relates to the increased prevalence of PTSD symptoms for those communicators who have been practicing their profession the longest. One of the findings from the October 2012 Ontario Ombudsman Report, ‘In the Line of Duty’ indicates relative to cumulative exposure:

<2>

If this is the situation for police personnel in Ontario we can only estimate the impact on communications personnel who are initially handling these and many other calls for service. Fortunately, many police services are taking a proactive role when initiating their critical incident protocols to include sworn and civilian police service members in the debriefing processes.

Overall, “(T)he police communicators in this study appear in many ways to have positive levels of psychological health and wellbeing.”<3> This news is encouraging. It is also reassuring to know there are ways for communications personnel to change how they cope with the demands of their work to lessen its psychological toll.

Although this research provides some insight for communications personnel, there can be no significant long term impact unless individuals use this information to self-reflect. Mental health and wellbeing are as important as physical health and wellbeing.

By taking care of ourselves and each other we can ensure long successful careers of public service followed by enjoyable retirement with family and friends.

FOOTNOTES

  1. This article is derived from the previously published ‘Predictors of physiological stress and psychological distress in police communicators’, by Cheryl Regehr, Vicki LeBlanc, Irene Barath, Janet Balch and Arija Birze, Routledge, Taylor and Francis Group, Police Practice and Research, 2013, Vol. 14, No. 6, pp 451-463,.

  2. Andre Marin, ‘In the Line of Duty’, Ombudsman Report, Ombudsman of Ontario, October 2012, p. 37

  3. Cheryl Regehr, Vicki LeBlanc, Irene Barath, Janet Balch and Arija Birze. ‘Predictors of physiological stress and psychological distress in police communicators’, Routledge, Taylor and Francis Group, Police Practice and Research, 2013, Vol. 14, No. 6, p. 459

Acknowledgements

The credentials of Provost and Professor Cheryl Regehr, Associate Professor Vicki LeBlanc and research analyst Aruja Birze are too extensive to catalogue in this article. They were critical to Janet Balch and myself (Irene Barath) as we moved this research project forward. Without the support and cooperation of the OPC, University of Toronto and the trust of Ontario police communicators, this research project would have remained only an idea.

BIO

Irene Barath is a Resilience and Wellness instructor in the OPC Leadership Development Unit. Contact her at Irene.Barath@Ontario.ca for more information.


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