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Published: 25 May 2016

Ambulance dispatch staff at high risk of occupational burnout, study reveals

New research has found that ambulance control workers require support to reduce sickness absence and job-related stress.

Claire Horsfield, a Teaching Fellow in Integrated Care from the University of Surrey's Faculty of Health and Medical Sciences, was part of a team of experts who interviewed staff responsible for co-ordinating emergency services for 999 calls to the ambulance.

The study found that, although they find the job rewarding, dispatchers felt overworked and undervalued compared to those on the front line.

The research was undertaken following concerns that ambulance control staff's levels of sickness leave were twice the national average.

The pressures of the role, increasing call volumes and a lack of appropriate support or recovery time after shifts increased the risk of occupational burnout, the research found. There was also a lack of structure to promote team-building, which had led to poor interpersonal relationships between dispatch and emergency crews.

"The work of call handlers and dispatchers in the emergency operations centres (EOC) is a difficult and undervalued role," Mrs Horsfield explained. "The emotional trauma they feel often goes unnoticed due to the demands of the setting they work in with little time off to reflect or recover from what has happened."

Following the findings, the study recommended implementing more opportunities for dispatchers, paramedics and emergency service crews to understand each other's jobs, including shadowing on shifts, to increase team cohesion. It also suggested higher management support and recognition, as well as skills training to promote post-shift recovery and prevent work-related fatigue.

The findings have also informed Surrey's own undergraduate degrees in Health Sciences, particularly our BSc Paramedic Practice programme, as it has highlighted the gap between paramedics and ambulance dispact staff.

"We now encourage all of our undergraduate students to spend placement time in the EOC to gain an understanding of the pressures faced by this faceless person sending them emergencies. The students really value this insight, and it changes their view of the whole system of manning a patient from the start of the call to their arrival on scene," said Mrs Horsfield.

The research, led by the University of Surrey and involving academic input from the University of East Anglia, Kingston University and Anglia Ruskin University, has been published in the Emergency Medicine Journal.

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