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Stress faced by emergency call handlers ‘damaging to health’

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The levels of stress experienced by emergency call handlers is damaging to their long term health, according to a pioneering study by UK researchers.

They noted that past research on how stress affected healthcare workers was largely focused on frontline staff. But they said little was previously known on the impact on call handlers who made the critical decisions in assessing what type of emergency response was required.

“The stress that they experience when responding to such calls should not be overlooked”

Mark Cropley

The new study involved researchers from the University of Surrey, University of Dundee, Anglia Ruskin University and Kingston University/St George’s, University of London.

Examining 16 studies from across the world, the researchers identified key factors that caused operatives stress and potentially impacted on their psychological health. Exposure to traumatic and abusive calls was found to negatively affect call handlers in the study, published in the journal PeerJ.

While they were not physically exposed to emergency situations, evidence demonstrated they experienced trauma vicariously, said the study authors. In one study, participants reported experiencing fear, helplessness or horror in reaction to 32% of the different types of calls that they received.

The study authors found the key stressor for call handlers was a lack of control over their workload, due to the unpredictability of calls and a lack of recognition of the demands of their assignments.

They noted another study had reported that ambulance call handlers felt out of control of their workload after returning from breaks, leading to staff not taking them and risking exhaustion.

“Staff are at risk of burnout, due to high workload, inadequate training and a lack of control”

Patricia Scofield

A lack of high quality training in dealing with pressurised calls was identified by some handlers as contributing to stress levels, added the researchers.

Study co-author Professor Mark Cropley, from Surrey University, said: “Call handlers across different emergency services consistently reported their job as highly stressful, which in turn affects their psychological health.

“This undoubtedly impacts on their overall wellbeing, leading to increased sickness and time away from work, putting additional strain on the service and their colleagues,” he said.

“Although handlers are not experiencing trauma first-hand, the stress that they experience when responding to such calls should not be overlooked,” said Professor Cropley.

Co-author Professor Patricia Schofield, of Anglia Ruskin University, added: “Call handlers are the frontline of emergency care but are often overlooked when it comes to studies about stress affecting the police, fire and ambulance services.

“This study finds evidence that staff are at risk of burnout, due to high workload, inadequate training and a lack of control,” she said.

“It’s important that these staff are considered and interventions made to ensure that they can cope with their workload - these people make vital decisions which affect lives,” said Professor Schofield.

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