“It’s hard to be on the receiving end of someone’s higher level of stress. And that is just the human condition right now.”
It may be a new year, but the stress, pain, and frustrations of 2020 are nowhere close to over. We all miss our friends and family, a lot of us are without our routines, and many of us are still without jobs.
Yet, for essential workers—people working in grocery stores, retail, transportation, bars and restaurants—the work is there, but it comes with far more hazards and new responsibilities: In addition to the stress of contracting COVID from the dozens of strangers they try to stay six-feet away from during shifts, those working these jobs are often in charge of enforcing mask requirements and seating and capacity limits.
In other words, people working in customer service are now required to do something they likely haven’t been trained to do (and in some industries actively dissuaded from doing): Tell people No.
Which is why IMPACT Boston, a local nonprofit organization focused on personal safety training like self defense, bystander intervention, de-escalation, and prevention, is offering free and remote de-escalation training courses for essential workers across the Commonwealth.
“It’s hard to be on the receiving end of someone’s higher level of stress and overwhelm,” said Meg Stone, IMPACT’s executive director. “And that is just the human condition right now.”
IMPACT has been teaching safety solutions like de-escalation courses since 1971, but this is the first time service industries have been a main focus.
“Before pandemic, the people we most often taught this to were people working in homeless shelters, domestic violence shelters, substance abuse resource centers, people who did home visits of various types, and, as they become more integral spaces for people without stable jobs or housing, public libraries,” in addition to working with corporate businesses and schools, Stone said.
“Right now, essential workers are a group of people who likely don’t get this type of training and can really benefit from it.”
The training, hosted virtually with IMPACT Program Coordinator and Instructor Adriana Lee and lead instructor, curriculum developer, and trainer Mike Perry, will focus on adrenaline management, identifying triggers and individual emotional responses, recognizing signs of potential physical or emotional violence, developing and maintaining awareness of your surroundings, and recognizing practical goals of various situations.
Which sounds like a lot, and it is—if you haven’t been offered the tools to navigate situations involving a person who is highly agitated.
“The first goal of this training is to de-escalate yourself,” Lee said. “You can’t help a situation if you’re not calm yourself. So one of the first things we focus on in class is trauma-informed adrenaline management exercises. There are things you can do to help train your body and stay as grounded as you can while you’re adrenalized, while you’re stressed.”
“It’s very hard to talk someone down who’s already agitated, and there’s a good reason for that, they’re not working from the rational part of the brain anymore,” said Perry, who came to IMPACT after many years of working as security in bars and clubs. “The amygdala is a small part of the brain, and if it perceives a threat it takes over, you enter fight or flight.”
“When you realize how to identify and manage your own adrenaline response and states, then you can start to assess a situation for threats. When both parties are beyond that point that’s when you end up with a serious confrontation or violence.”
In addition to recognizing and understanding individual adrenal and emotional responses and triggers to stressful situations, the course covers common behaviors that can make a situation worse, not better (spoiler alert: telling someone to calm down doesn’t work).
Another key component of the training is role-playing various scenarios someone working at Whole Foods or a local bar might encounter, and what a supportive work environment or management team can bring to the table. In addition to educating and empowering employees, this training can help prompt conversations between employees and employers about expectations and support regarding de-escalating situations with guests and customers.
“Restaurants, bars, grocery stores are doing everything they can in this crisis,” said Lee, “but a lot of people working there not only don’t know what to do in a confrontational situation but also have to worry about losing their jobs if they try and are unsuccessful.”
There is, unfortunately, often a major disconnect between employees and management on what is in an employee’s best interest when it comes to handling these situations, she continued.
Ultimately, without clear communication of expectations and responsibilities, employees can be stuck between fearing for their job if they do act and fearing for their personal safety and that of their coworkers if they don’t.
According to waitlist levels, there is a lot of community need and interest. The first session of this course filled in four days. A second takes place Wednesday, Feb. 24, a third will be on March 11, and more are already being added.
“Whether we’re conscious of it or not, the pandemic is a constant source of stress, even if that just means more inconveniences and not necessarily traumas, all of our lives are disrupted,” Stone said.
“But it’s not okay that people working in grocery stores are being yelled at for following state guidelines, for trying to safely do their jobs they don’t have the privilege to do from home. IMPACT should not have to exist; nothing that we teach and nothing that we do should be anything that anyone has to learn,” she continued.
“As a person who does a job that does not have to exist, and has for decades, what’s really important to me is that people who are put in situations no one should be put in go into those situations with skills and perspectives that help them live their values and be equipped to minimize the harm to them.”
And what a wonderful world that would be.
More information and registration at impactboston.org/classes/online-classes or on Facebook. The “De-Escalation Workshops” are open to the public and advocates and are free for essential staff. For questions about the class, please contact instructor Adriana Li at email@example.com.
Haley is an AAN Award-winning columnist for DigBoston and Mel magazine and has contributed to publications including the Boston Globe and helped found Homicide Watch Boston. She has spearheaded and led several Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism investigations including a landmark multipart series about the racialized history of liquor licensing in Massachusetts, and for three years wrote the column Terms of Service about restaurant industry issues from the perspective of workers.