What is the role of management in reducing workplace stress for "first responders"?
Management has a vitally important role in helping first-responders, such as police officers, firefighters, and ambulance/Emergency Medical Technician personnel, manage or control the stress that is an inherent part of such professions. Especially with respect to law enforcement and firefighting, these missions are inherently stressful, as they routinely involve life-threatening situations and often split-second decisions with major potential ramifications. And these are professions that are not traditionally well-compensated, although wages for police and firefighters have improved over time.
One of the ways management of first-responders deals with stress levels among subordinates is through carefully managed work schedules. Firefighters, for example, work long shifts, as long as 24 hours at a time, sleeping and eating at the firehouse so that they are as responsive as possible to the inevitable alarms that most assuredly will go off. At the end of these shifts, however, they are routinely given two days off to rest. These shift structures help firefighters to retain some semblance of a family life while preventing occupational "burn-out." Similarly, Emergency Medical Technicians work complicated shift schedules that factor in the impossibility of predicting how long an ambulance crew or EMT team will be on a call. The nature of the crises to which EMTs respond do not lend themselves to set hours. As a result, they are expected to work long shifts but are compensated for more hours than they may actually work. In other words, they may be scheduled for fewer than the traditional 40-hour work week, but with the expectation that overtime will result in at least 40 hours actually worked.
Another way managers help their employees control stress is through regular medical exams and, especially in the case of police officers, psychological counseling. While there are outward or external manifestations of prolonged periods of stress, such as irritability, the internal manifestations may not be apparent absent visits to medical clinics. By monitoring over time heart rates, blood pressure, and so on, management can stay abreast of the toll taken on employees. In the case of police officers, prolonged periods patrolling high-crime urban areas can be extremely stressful, diminishing the mental and physical capacity of individual officers to respond to major crises, such as a terrorist attack, or even to respond appropriately to common but life-endangering incidents involving armed suspects. Mandatory psychological counseling for police officers regularly operating in high-stress environments can help management to detect cases of mental exhaustion and emotional duress. This, in turn, can help the manager to better manage his or her staff.
Which brings us to the next manner in which the stress levels to which first-responders are routinely subjected can be controlled. Leaving personnel in high-stress environments for too long can, obviously, result in poor or even dangerous performance of responsibilities, such as when unarmed suspects are shot by officers accustomed to operating in hostile environments. Soldiers are not the only individuals who must be trained to function in ambiguous but stressful atmospheres. Police officer similarly must be trained to maintain a certain demeanor less they react adversely to a stressful situation. It is imperative, therefore, that managers monitor their first-responders and establish rotation policies that ensure that no individual spends too much time in the harshest environments. Admittedly this is easier said than done, but it is important nonetheless.
The importance of management in dealing with the stress under which first-responders are expected to function cannot be overstated. Failures on the part of managers to monitor and detect instances of mentally impaired firefighters, police or EMTs can have catastrophic results. The first-responders themselves can not be expected to take the requisite measures to prevent mental deterioration caused by prolonged periods of stress. That is why managers must perform that task for them.