Emergency communications has been classified as a high stress occupation. No one needed to tell us that. In a 2001 study of police employees, Davey, Obst, and Sheehan found distinct work environment-related risk factors which create a job stress-alcohol consumption relationship. This is the scientific title for downing a few to blot out the craziness of the day. These factors include:
- Work overload or underload
- Poor job satisfaction
- Shift work
- Too much or too little supervision
- Long working hours
- High levels of heat, light or noise
- Lack of rules relating to alcohol consumption
These factors can be classified into four major categories: physical environment, style of management, job characteristics and acceptability of alcohol. The resulting tiredness and severe disruption to family life further intensifies stress. All of these factors can be found in the emergency communications center. Due to the fluid nature of the work, you can go from too much to too little in a matter of minutes. Add to the job stress, life stress and the availability or, lack thereof, of alternative coping mechanisms and social support to use these, as well as the duration of stress, and a strong cocktail is produced. Shaken, not stirred, please.
An interesting finding in a study by Harris & Fennel is the belief alcohol reduces stress and increases drinking. This is interesting because according to Dr. Melissa Stoppler, "alcohol actually increases the stress response by stimulating production of the same hormones the body produces when under stress." Dr. Enoch Gordis agrees, explaining, "Drinking alcohol produces physiological stress." In response to the reason people drink to relieve stress he states, "Why people should engage in an activity that produces effects similar to those they are trying to relieve is a paradox that we do not yet understand." Yet, when there is too much work to do and you are putting in long hours, it often feels more difficult to relax, slow down or both once off-shift. This can create an atmosphere that encourages social drinking or debriefing. "The salience of drinking to relax is perhaps heightened if you in fact need to unwind," Harris & Fennel explain. These beliefs about drinking can come from a variety of sources, including early socialization, cultural norms and peer pressure.
An important piece of the paradoxical puzzle within law enforcement is a cultural norm or a sense of community which encourages drinking. Enter Choir Practice. According to Harris & Fennel, a 1983 study by Seeman and Anderson found that a greater sense of community was correlated with heavier drinking. "If you have friends and they believe in taking a drink or two to relax after work, you are more likely to think similarly and to actually do so, than if your friends don't believe in the efficacy of drinking to reduce stress, or if you don't have friends," Harris & Fennel state. Davy, Obst, and Sheehan agree saying high levels of teamwork, which results in peer pressure, alcohol availability, a permissive attitude and work traditions can all lead to drinking. This same drinking subculture can lead colleagues to protect each other and cover for alcohol misuse.