Although the holidays are the most wonderful time of the year for many, for first responders the season is often a bit more nuanced. The holiday season can be especially difficult in their personal lives when, in addition to the usual challenges of shift work, it often means more missed memories with families. And in their professional lives, it can mean increased emergencies, or incidents which may be more difficult due to their nature.
While many of these challenges are unavoidable aspects of the profession, it’s still possible – and important – to plan for them in a way that can make a positive difference. In some cases this comes in the form of healthier coping skills, and in others it can be as simple as acknowledging the difficulties and preparing emotionally rather than being caught off guard.
It’s important to consider how compromised mental health can ultimately impact service to the community, but it’s even more important to consider how that same stress can impact quality of life. First responders deserve the same care and attention they dedicate their lives to providing for others, making it a worthy goal to positively manage stress during the holidays.
Anticipating increased levels of stress
Statistically, the holiday season tends to see an increase in emergencies, many of which have relatively simple explanations. More travel means more opportunity for car accidents. Family gatherings mean more opportunity for conflict. Large meals with oftentimes inexperienced cooks means a greater risk of fire. And the emotional nature of the season can mean more mental or emotional stress resulting in increased self-harm or suicide.
In many ways, the most first and most important method to deal with stress is to simply anticipate it. It can be easy to be caught up in the general rhythm of life without taking a moment to acclimate before getting thrown into the proverbial fire of the holiday season. For seasoned first responders, this can mean reflecting on struggles felt during previous years, remembering things that may have helped or harmed in the past, and reinforcing that it won’t last much beyond the new year. For those newer to the industry, it can mean being ready to deviate from the typical and learn new skills – especially those that help you stay healthy and happy.
Healthy coping mechanisms
The reality is there is probably not a lot that can be said here which most first responders haven’t heard before, but that doesn’t make it any less important to try and keep in mind – most especially when things feel difficult.
We all certainly know that we should eat well, exercise, and take care of our bodies as best we can during times of stress. Although almost always easier said than done, doing so does have the potential to make a big impact on our mental health and our ability to cope with stress. Most importantly, don’t expect perfection in this department – as that only creates more stress trying to resolve stress. Even something small like a walk, or not letting a few off-days ruin your resolve, can be a difference-maker.
Additionally, don’t let the activities that bring you joy fall off the radar. Whether it’s painting, video games, reading, sports, or anything else – it can be easy to get busy, get stressed, and stop making time for things that don’t feel as important as the responsibilities weighing you down. Indulging in interests can be a great outlet for stress, and help give us things to look forward to, even if they are ultimately only small and simple pleasures.
It can be a challenge to identify what activities or behaviors can make a genuinely positive impact during stressful times, but first responders who know where they can fall back for relief will find the challenges of the job more manageable as opposed to getting swept away by the demands of the industry. Spending time with friends and family can help avoid focusing too much on the pressure, an easy way to find a little reprieve, especially during a time when any small bit can help.
Creative personal solutions
In the absence of perfect solutions, there are some more innovative ones that can help within the context of the demands of the job. While the below suggestions may be a start, be creative with your own challenges and what unorthodox solutions could help alleviate them.
For example, one SafeCities™ employee shared that during her years working in an emergency communications center, she routinely planned her own annual personal holiday outside of the traditional season. Knowing that time off wouldn’t be possible during the actual holidays, she instead took a break in late January or early February. In doing so, every year she was able to look forward to her own designated holiday season – which is especially helpful in decompressing after coming off the intense needs of the season, and giving yourself something to work toward.
Another one of our employees shared a method one of her former coworkers used to use every year as well, which is scheduling the specific holidays according to his days off. That meant that instead of observing Thanksgiving or Christmas on the actual day, it was instead planned for his closest assigned day off, with family treating it like the real deal. Because he had young kids, he and his spouse explained that Santa understands some parents have important work to do on Christmas Day, so he delivers their presents on different days so the family can all be together.
Acknowledging challenges in the industry
Unfortunately the reality is oftentimes what may be in your best interest as a person may be in direct conflict with the needs of the agency. A break after a difficult call or a few minutes of alone time may not be possible depending on your staffing levels when there’s always another incident needing a response. In these cases, it’s even more important to maintain clear lines of communication and ensure room to support open dialogue between employees and management for the benefit and well-being of everyone in the agency.
From a management perspective, small things can make a big difference – especially in moments where they may be needed most. Engagement and attention to your employees can offer cues that someone may not be doing well – if someone is speaking or acting out of character, arriving late when they are usually on time, or doing anything that may be considered noticeably out of the ordinary, it may be time to speak with them to see what resources could make a difference.
In terms of infrastructure, an automated scheduling solution can be a big helper. Time off can be challenging enough during the best of times, and a software that can intelligently automate shift and vacation bid processes can be a relief on management while providing flexibility for employees. Most importantly, the time savings an automated solution can offer means gaining those hours back, essentially providing additional headcount. This law enforcement agency saved 84% of the hours they spent scheduling per week using Schedule Express, which gained them nearly one more full-time employee. Especially during the holidays, one more available person can make a world of difference for employees and managers alike.
Ultimately, as with many challenges in public safety – there’s no one way every agency or every first responder can make all the difficulties of the industry disappear. However, planning and attention can go a long way to help first responders receive just some of the same care they provide to everyone else.