Reducing 911 Dispatcher Burnout & Turnover Through Behavioral Insights
A new report from the Behavioral Insights Team & the University of California at Berkeley connects a sense of belonging to employee retention
By Ivy Gilbert
Over the course of a year, the average 911 emergency service dispatcher will take over 2,400 phone calls. These calls can range from connecting a resident to medical care for a sprained ankle to dispatching the right support for someone whose life is being threatened or in imminent danger. The variability of these calls creates a high-stress work environment that is both emotionally exhausting and potentially traumatic, exacerbated by the long hours of an inherently stressful job that requires mandatory overtime and pays low wages.
Multiple recent workplace studies have associated employee burnout with high turnover and poor organizational performance, and it’s no surprise that as the volume of 911 calls increases across the country, so are the levels of 911 dispatcher burnout, absenteeism, and turnover — leaving an alarming number of vacancies in a role that is critical to the health and safety of a city’s residents. Over 40 percent of 911 dispatchers exhibit high levels of burnout, more than double the burnout rate of employees in other fields. And, in addition to the public safety risk created by high turnover in emergency call centers, recruiting and training a new hire to replace the dispatchers who have left can cost a city tens of thousands of dollars, sometimes even in the hundreds of thousands range, per resignation.
A new report, however, from a team of researchers from the University of California at Berkeley and the Behavioral Insights Team (BIT) offers a promising potential solution for cities struggling to keep their 911 dispatch centers fully staffed and retain these critical front-line workers.
The report, authored by Dr. Elizabeth Linos, Krista Ruffini, and Stephanie Wilcoxen, presents the results of a field experiment of over 500 subjects across nine U.S. cities.¹ The experiment was designed in collaboration with the cities to determine if low-cost interventions that emphasized social relationships between 911 dispatchers in the form of weekly, storytelling emails could substantially reduce burnout and resignations.
The results of the intervention showed that four months after the pilot ended, dispatchers who received these emails reported a significant decrease in burnout, and resignations in this group were reduced by half as a result of the intervention.
Fostering Community and a Sense of Belonging: The Email Pilot Program Design
There is a growing body of evidence that workplace burnout is lower in environments where employees have a strong professional identity and feel like they are surrounded by a strong sense of community built on a foundation of shared experiences — qualities that exist for other emergency first responders such as a city’s police force and firefighters. But despite being on the front lines of emergency response, 911 dispatchers have a less unified and cohesive sense of professional identity, serving in a role that is often publicly misunderstood and undervalued by others in the first responder community.
Linos, a behavioral economist, had repeatedly heard from cities during her time as the Head of Research for BIT North America that 911 dispatcher absenteeism — and the vicious ensuing cycle leading to low morale and employee burnout — was a constant challenge.
With the support of What Works Cities, a Bloomberg Philanthropies initiative, Linos’ team at BIT identified nine cities from the What Works Cities community that were well-positioned to participate in the 911 dispatcher burnout study. Building off an evidence base from previous studies about burnout in the emergency responder community, BIT, in collaboration with staff members from the cohort of cities, designed a randomized control trial (RCT) to test a low-cost email intervention that aimed to foster a sense of social belonging and professional identity between the hundreds of 911 dispatchers in the nine cities.
The intervention consisted of a series of six weekly emails that uplifted the lived experiences of dispatchers across the network of nine cities in the hopes of creating a feeling of comradery, knowledge sharing, and reflection on the value of their unique skill sets. Over the six week trial, participants received a weekly email from their supervisor or a department leader that prompted them to fill out a short survey to share stories from their time as dispatchers, ranging from the qualities of a great mentor to a memory of a moment when they were able to find humor in such a difficult job.
Depending on the answers submitted the week before, the following week’s email would include a featured response and link to the rest of the submitted responses, while also reminding participants that taking the time to share their stories was an opportunity to support their peers and new dispatchers. One such email shared the powerful experience of a dispatcher who was able to connect a woman, who was in a life threatening domestic violence situation and was not able to speak on the phone, to the right support; the email acknowledged that the actions of the dispatcher had saved the woman’s life.
Immediately after the email trial ended and again four months later, Linos and her team collected data measuring reported rates of burnout and turnover from both the control and trial groups to examine the impact of the intervention.
Read the full report to learn more about the methodology and results.
Linos cautions that the findings require additional research before moving to scale solutions such as these, but acknowledges that the study’s initial results “are a real effect.” For cities wrestling with the issue of 911 dispatcher burnout and turnover within a constrained environment, the report’s findings can be highly instructive.
“You can’t double people’s salary or decrease their job demands or take away the stress. The very nature of frontline work is stressful and traumatic and there’s only so much you can do to change the nature of the job itself,” said Linos in an interview with What Works Cities. “What this study finds, though, is that you can change the work environment in ways that are meaningful.”
For one, cities would do well to think seriously about how they are building social connections and inclusivity within dispatchers’ work environments and among other first responder communities, given how important dispatchers’ sense of belonging and feeling valued seems to be in reducing burnout. Providing avenues for 911 dispatchers to connect with each other through short testimonies and storytelling could be another effective, low-cost way of creating peer support opportunities.
Ultimately, the study is a starting point for building a robust evidence base that shows how implementing simple, low-cost interventions that foster a sense of social belonging and professional identity amongst 911 dispatchers can decrease worker-reported feelings of burnout and increase employee retention.
Linos encourages other cities to consider working with academics or organizations that employ behavioral science to understand human behavior in order to understand what works in a given emergency call center. “What’s most impressive with this study is that we got nine cities to be pioneers and take the risk with us,” she said. “And I think other cities should follow suit because it turns out you can have these major positive effects.”
Ivy Gilbert is a Marketing and Communications Assistant for What Works Cities.
¹ The nine cities that participated in the study were: Albuquerque (NM), Cambridge (MA), Glendale (AZ), Greensboro (NC), Mesa (AZ), Portland (OR), Salt Lake City (UT), Tempe (AZ), and West Palm Beach (FL).
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