For First Responders, Work-Life Balance Must Be a “Part of the Job”—Just Like Long Hours

Public safety is not like other industries. That is true at ground level, where any staffer may face more risk than the average office worker does in a lifetime, and grows truer with the unique blend of political, managerial, and public-facing roles that personnel must play as they work up the ranks. Challenging under normal operations, these differences become especially apparent when implementing serious change, even when welcomed by employees.

This brings us to the idea of work-life balance, a term with so many apparent common-sense benefits that it can be surprising to discover all the obstacles an agency may face in attempting to achieve them. Although some public sector jobs may offer the idealized work-life balance of past working generations, perceived or real, a job in the public safety realm seems like a bundle of problems waiting to happen.

While many industries will have to consider one or more of these problems, few will have to handle them all at the rate and frequency of public safety organizations.

·      Need and employee demand for overtime hours

·      Budgeting requirements for adding staff

·      Area-coverage concerns

·      Potential legal liability

·      Long-term public safety and health outcomes

This does not mean that achieving greater work-life balance is impossible or unnecessary in public safety. In many cases, balance addresses the  problems that influence and increase risk for personnel, their families and friends, and the communities they serve. These problems largely come down to stress – the endless ways it can appear in public safety and the ugly forms it can take when it manifests.

Is it time to reconsider overtime?

Ask anyone to describe what they think a responder’s professional life is like, and the words “long hours” will almost certainly factor into the description. It is widely accepted that long hours are an inescapable part of the job, even with the adverse outcomes a tough schedule can pose in the moment and over time, as one insightful Governing piece notes.

Long hours and overtime are a perfect foil for the idea of a better work-life balance. Many employees value the opportunity for overtime. It is often less expensive than full-term hiring of additional personnel, especially when considering factors like training and benefits. Speaking generally, the public doesn’t seem to mind the presence of response personnel unless scandal or financial suspicions arise. Crime and emergencies do not adhere to a time clock and hiring quality candidates is not as easy as putting an ad in the paper, adding to the perception of overtime as a necessary evil.

Governing’s analysis, however, argues that something needs to be done to balance work hours against an individual’s personal life and commitments. The article cites an alarming number of negative effects caused by fatigue in law enforcement. In one study, for instance, officers who worked 13-hour shifts recorded a “significantly higher” number of complaints than those who worked ten or less hours per shift. It’s the same story in other branches, too, where long hours have been associated with impaired decision making, excessive staffing costs, and all the problems that can stem from both.

Stress, as noted above, plays a contributing role in most of these problems. Consider a police officer pulling a long shift on traffic duty. Between the immense background stress that comes with every car window they approach—and the very real risks amid factors the officer cannot directly control—there are long periods of boredom, itself now increasingly linked to stress. If intensity and duration of pressure are two key factors in creating mental health issues and employment-related concerns, a perfectly average day can be a minefield.

The unique realities of public safety further complicate matters. At some level, working long hours affects job performance, but the very skills responders learn as a matter of course give them ample opportunities for off-hours work, as well. Moonlighting officers are common in most communities, often in capacities as private security officers in which the line between official and private duty can be easily blurred. Issues beyond work-life balance have undoubtedly forced many agencies to set limits: A law enforcement or fire organization may allow its off-duty personnel to work area sporting events but not provide security in liquor establishments, for instance. It maybe time to treat balance as a primary consideration as well.

Exploring approaches to better balance

Most approaches an agency takes in trying to provide its personnel with a better work-life balance will follow two guiding philosophies: making it optional or making it mandatory. As readers can imagine, both options exist because neither is perfect. Organizations choosing a harder approach may find resistance from personnel who want extra hours and run afoul of labor agreements, just as those who allow employees more self-pacing may struggle to achieve buy-in.

Moreover, agencies owe it to themselves and the public to pay the concept more than cursory consideration. Cutting overtime as a cost-saving measure will likely be resented by some personnel, no matter how much attention the idea of balance receives. Regardless of how the agency chooses to address the change, the focus must be on solving the issues that result from overwork, both in terms of internal motivation and outward service rendered.

Fortunately, work- and mental health-related issues are areas in which conceptual awareness can instill positive long-term change. There is a growing body of evidence that younger working generations value the concept of balance more than the veterans who share their workplace. With no judgment toward those who gain satisfaction and financial benefit from a lengthy workday, this may make buy-in problems easier to manage as a younger generation of responders fills the ranks.

A better work-life balance can have immediate benefits. Given the gravity of the work and the proven benefit of simple rest between shifts, a few hours’ sleep—or just fewer hours on one’s feet—could, conceivably, represent the difference between an uneventful call and a situation where a lapse in judgment spirals out of control.

Ultimately, agencies that perceive long hours as damaging or dangerous will be more likely to establish mandatory limits. In this regard, they may find some leeway in reducing hours without making changes so drastic that employees must face financial stress or adjust to a large crop of new employees—even those hired with the earnest goal of helping reduce pressure from too much time on the clock.

Conclusion

If there is a universal challenge to instilling better work-life balance in an organization, it is that the term has become somethin of a buzz phrase in recent years; a concept only adopted by private progressive white-collar companies. Agencies wishing to make real progress with the idea are best served by tools that push the idea forward dynamically, frequently, and creatively. While there will always be an important place for classroom-led learning, and while balance can certainly be taught in such an environment, online training that allows for flexibility can bolster its own message by giving personnel more options for achieving such balance. Instruction that builds the concept into larger ideas—a course about decision-making that emphasizes the importance of time off, for example—has been shown to be equally effective in other training settings and would undoubtedly carry similar conceptual strengths in public safety.

Given these dynamics, organizations across the public safety spectrum need to consider the medium as well as the message. This stands true regardless of their overall approach or the specific services they wish to offer. In every area of public safety, tools that streamline and automate tasks, thus reducing time spent on daily data management and paperwork, can reinforce the mission within their organization. When considering software to manage training, testing, and personnel evaluations, agencies can consider how a comprehensive Training Management System like the Acadis Readiness Suite will help save time and reduce stress on overworked officers.

Some areas where such a TMS could be helpful include:

·      Scheduling: Acadis can be configured to take a rules-based approach with little need for individuals to make manual changes. This relieves administrators and instructors from having to identify and resolve conflicts every time a course is scheduled. Also, personnel can manage their own registration and compliance requirements at their convenience, without supervisory involvement.

·      Recordkeeping: Automatically attaching completion results, test scores, and other training information to individual employee records makes data collection and compliance management easier. For example, a supervisor can see whether all employees requesting overtime have been trained on stress-reduction techniques or have acknowledged department policies on the subject. An efficient data management system also eliminates time-consuming searches for essential certification and training data, so agencies can identify and deploy the most qualified personnel.

·      Updated training: Greater control over the granular details of training can make it easier to work new philosophies and goals into existing material. Classes that are built on templates can easily be adapted to include the most relevant insights and resources.

If your organization is concerned about the negative outcomes of poor work-life balance, remember that strategy and approach are key—but the tools used to support both are every bit as important.

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