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.
It is not uncommon for emergency communications operators to get together, often with officers, after work for a drink or two (or three or four) at the local bar. Swapping stories, getting follow-up information on calls you've worked and hanging out in an atmosphere where you feel understood and appreciated are all reasons for this socialization. No one seems to think twice about the excessive amount of alcohol consumed during many get-togethers. You could have ten beers and probably no one would notice, and if they do, the chances of them calling you on it are close to none. Even supervisors attend these gatherings, not as management, but as buddies drinking right alongside the rank and file.
The holidays can definitely add to already high levels of stress. Trying to accomplish everything at home while working your shift and often overtime, dealing with the excess of citizen family turmoil, financial strain, as well as the increased celebratory nature of get-togethers with friends and colleagues can fuel a month-long drinking binge. To avoid the costs associated with excessive drinking, including exhaustion, nausea and poor concentration, try incorporating some alternative coping mechanisms into your life. Granted, shift work and overtime often prevent emergency communications operators from attaining alternative coping mechanisms, such as social support, counseling, stress management strategies and exercise. A bar is open at midnight. The psychiatrist is not. Regardless, for the sake of your mental and physical health and your job, helpguide.org recommends trying a few of these:
- Talk to a positive friend
- Play with a pet
- Get a massage
- Listen to music
- Watch a comedy
- Spend time in nature
- Work with your hands: knit, bead or scrapbook
- Take a bath
- Write in your journal
Try to imagine what you would do if alcohol didn't exist. What activities do you enjoy? Whether it's curling up with a movie or hiking the mountain, try incorporating these into your schedule. It's difficult, but considering how much time people spend drinking, a couple of hours a week for healthy activities is not unreasonable. The police culture is immersed in socially-accepted alcohol consumption. That doesn't mean you have to buy into it. You can still go and have a good time. Just have a mocktail. Happy Holidays.