Coping Strategies: How Online Training Can Help Keep Personnel Healthy

Stress. Illness. Substance abuse. Divorce. Domestic violence. While most people are aware of the line-of-duty risks faced by emergency response personnel, there are many more stressors in fields like law enforcement and firefighting that are less visible.

Between 2013 and 2018, suicide claimed some 30 percent more firefighters than line-of-duty deaths, a disturbing figure in any context—and made more horrifying in light of the immense danger the job poses. Law enforcement officers fall at a similar rate, relative to line-of-duty deaths.

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) has also received more attention recently. Research finds that traumatic incidents suffered in the field have a stronger impact on officers than those encountered off-duty, and traumatic memories create specific responses in the brain.

While previous generations may have accepted these issues as simply the nature of the job, modern departments have more tools—and more motivation—to help improve the lives of their team members.

How can agencies reduce the impact of stress?

The ongoing crises of 2020 added to the strain on first responders. As more agencies come to grips with just how challenging mental health issues are, it becomes increasingly clear that services and training related to their prevention and treatment are not expensive luxuries or secondary concerns—and training on coping skills may well be the quickest line-of-service way to keep personnel from succumbing to the cumulative and day-to-day stresses of the job.

The Department of Justice’s Community Oriented Policing Services changed the focus of its long-running series of discussions on officer safety in 2019, moving from “worst-case scenarios” and line-of-duty deaths to stress issues and their negative outcomes. To say the least, the findings are eye-opening. More than 15 percent of male and female officers, for instance, reported “negative […] consequences because of their alcohol abuse”; the paper further poses that PTSD may be more widespread among officers than the data suggests. PTSD is often “invisible” to outsiders, including the sufferer’s closest loved ones, until it manifests in life-derailing problems.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention offers self-care tips for first responders involved in disaster relief, which can also apply to day-to-day stressors:

  • Limit working hours to no longer than 12-hour shifts.
  • Work in teams and limit amount of time working alone.
  • Write in a journal.
  • Talk to family, friends, supervisors, and teammates about your feelings and experiences.
  • Practice breathing and relaxation techniques.
  • Maintain a healthy diet and get adequate sleep and exercise.
  • Know that it is okay to draw boundaries and say “no.”
  • Avoid or limit caffeine and alcohol.

Self-care is not a buzzword or a cure-all for anything that may disrupt a responder’s performance. Self-care requires individuals to be mindful of things that may be bothering them and (knowing themselves better than anyone) actively seek out ways to combat the problems being triggered, a task that sounds challenging on paper but may ultimately come down to simple awareness.

Coping skills: The role of online training

How can agencies impart these skills among new and existing personnel in an effective, impactful manner? Cultural changes, particularly those that limit excessive exposure to trauma and that reduce the stigma around mental health issues, are an important aspect of the job.

Now consider the core differences between in-person training and online delivery methods, both common in emergency response settings. While both play a role in developing skills, electronically delivered content may have an advantage when addressing coping strategies.

Not everyone is comfortable bringing up their personal issues in a setting packed with others. Real or perceived, the stigma surrounding mental health issues will always be a challenge when trying to get help to those who need it.

Alongside screenings and other common employer-focused tools, agencies are turning to upgraded learning management tools to provide better service to employees who may secretly struggle with an inability to cope, as well as those who have developed maladaptive strategies to deal with the stresses of their work.

Consider the following options:

  • An agency wishing to cut back on perceived spikes in employee substance abuse takes not punitive measures, but launches instead an online program—open to everyone—that outlines strategies and ways the organization can offer help to anyone who wishes to take it; the anonymized setting and at-your-pace learning encourage employees with issues to step forward.
  • Another agency uses its learning management system (LMS) to ask exactly what areas employees struggle with, and then hires a professional to interpret results and offer solutions.
  • A third organization, wishing simply to make employees aware of coping strategies such as self-care, opts to use online access as an alternative to “embarrassing” public training on the matter. Allowed to view and consume content in their own time, employees are more receptive to the ideas presented.

Ideas like these show how training systems and delivery methods  can be just as important as the message itself. The right LMS and online training tools, like the ones provided by the Acadis® Readiness Suite, can help. Organizations struggling to get the right point across may wish to consider approaching from this angle to make the mental health of their workers a priority.

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Posted on Jan 21, 2021