The risks of exhaustion for first responders and the communities they serve
Public safety agencies operate 24/7/365, driven by their commitment to serving and protecting their communities. That said, it’s also integral to protect the workforce who makes that possible. Unfortunately one of the most prominent trends in the public safety industry today is overwork and fatigue, which is supplemented by unhealthy coping mechanisms to keep working and maintain adequate energy levels. According to the findings of representatives from WHO and the International Labor Organization, nearly three-quarters of a million people die every year because of being overworked.
As a result, fatigue management is imperative for employee safety. With countless people in the workforce across the US and the world becoming overburdened and overwhelmed at their jobs, especially for our communities’ first responders, it’s important to understand the unhealthy coping mechanisms of burned-out employees (such as caffeine and smoking), navigate fatigue for the benefit of both employer and employee, and ultimately support organizations to promote healthier business practices and lifestyles.
High levels of workplace fatigue combined with irregular and unhealthy sleep schedules, many employees are finding that, unchecked, these unsustainable practices are spiraling into bigger problems which become more difficult to solve as time goes on. It’s easy for overworked employees, especially those committed to the mission of serving their communities, to hold a sense of pride that they are essentially doing more than what is required. However, inadequate sleep builds up sleep debt among employees, weakens their immune systems, and gives way to countless sleeping disorders. Further, lack of sleep can actually lead to peaked energy levels right before bed, essentially tricking people into thinking they have more energy than they actually do and continuing to fatigue themselves.
Especially with current staffing shortages, it’s not uncommon for first responders to be working back-to-back shifts and excessive amounts of overtime, making fatigue, irritability, and other short- and long-term effects of exhaustion all too common. One of the easiest patchwork solutions adopted by employees is to consume unmoderated amounts of caffeine. A popular reprieve to help get consumers through long shifts, caffeine can seriously affect the health of the employee and the productivity of the organization. Caffeine increases anxiety and interferes with sleep, reducing cognitive performance and negatively impacting mood. It is also highly addictive and causes the illusion of taking performance to new heights when it is, in fact, slowing down your employees in the long term.
When it comes to the consequences of fatigue, it extends beyond the employee and the agency, and right back into the community they are trying to protect. Fatigue can affect not just an employee’s work and productivity, but also seriously endanger lives. There is always the possibility of a crash due to excessive caffeine and constant fatigue at work. This is especially problematic when, due to the demands of the workplace, they don’t feel there is anything that can be done except hope for the best. Sometimes they know the time off won’t get approved, and sometimes they're too exhausted to realize it at all. And it’s far too common for the demands of the workplace plus the demands of their home and personal lives to mean that driving becomes their primary time to decompress, allowing the fatigue to settle in during the moments their attention and alertness is needed most.
Supporting better choices
Here are some steps to help your team combat and manage fatigue. It’s important to note that while agencies may be limited in their resource availability, and solutions need to be realistic. It would be great to say “just hire more people” if it were that easy – unfortunately it’s not, which means the most meaningful changes will need to come from the agency itself. There are many small things employees can do to help themselves, but the biggest impacts will come from addressing the problem at its root: More sustainable working environments.
- Encourage employees to look for healthier alternatives for caffeine
Replacing energy drinks and coffee with healthier options such as consuming a filling snack, or drinking tea, protein drinks, or smoothies, can radically transform their work habits, break the cycle of caffeine dependency, and better enable employees to assess their fatigue levels.
- Regulating caffeine consumption
While it’s not necessary to eliminate caffeine entirely, a mindful option is to stop consuming caffeine five to six hours before sleep, while also being aware of total daily intake. While the appropriate amount will vary from individual to individual, and specific concerns should be addressed with a medical professional, generally speaking 300-400mg is considered a safe range for daily use. This is about four cups of coffee, or two energy drinks, though keep in mind amounts will vary depending on the item.
- Encourage open dialogue regarding workload
It’s easy to stifle conversation about overworking when everyone knows there is no perfect solution to resolve. That said, even in the absence of an easy fix, there is value in keeping the lines of communication open if not just to acknowledge, validate, and remain aware of the ongoing challenges faced by employees rather than trying to keep problems out of sight and out of mind.
- Taking a break every two hours
When in the middle of long 10- and 12-hour shifts, try to ensure employees can take breaks every two hours – even if they’re very short. Whether that’s a quick walk, getting some sun, a chance to eat or stay hydrated, it’ll make a big difference for energy levels and morale.
- Creating and enforcing fatigue management rules
Fatigue management in first responders isn’t just a luxury – there is so much room for over-exerted employees to harm themselves or members of the community as a result of exhaustion. Although there can be many challenges, especially in cases of understaffing, where it’s not possible to provide the most ideal solution, it is important to establish and enforce some hard boundaries that are documented and understood.
Although often tempting to ignore, it’s essential to understand the importance and possible consequences of fatigue, and foster a work culture that thrives on productivity and employee wellness.
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