OPINION | Stress from above: When the hall, not the call, is the stress.

The Oversight of Organizational Stress in Fire Departments

BY: Nick Halmasy

The main emphasis for firefighter distress has focused on calls. The stories we tend to hear have an “index” (main) trauma that we can trace back to the onset of particular symptoms. It is undeniable that the call exposure can lead to the development of mental health issues. This tends to be conceptualized as “cumulative stress”—the build-up of different stressors over time. What we may be missing is the vast array of stressors that we can experience that have only peripheral or no connection to calls.

Our institutions themselves contribute to the stress, but most avoid acknowledging them as a stressor. There may be some significant issues with this oversight of organizational stress. We may be missing a large portion of causation for mental strife in our members, as well as neglecting a large area for which we can effect real resilience and preventative care.

Occupational stress is conceptualized as stressors that the firefighter will experience outside of providing the standard of care for which they primarily employed. These stressors are still a factor of the job role (e.g., sleep disturbances) (Sawhney et al., 2018), pay, co-worker interaction, substandard health practices, boredom (Beaton & Murphy, 1993), but are considered more secondary to the job role. Part of these stressors come from the occupational demands of the job (e.g., paperwork post call, follow up with superiors, operational investigations or inquests following calls), but their impact on firefighter mental health are not often discussed.

A study by Sawhey et al. (2018) found that firefighters identified a positive correlation between occupational stress and mental health symptoms—as the occupational stressors increased, so too did the instances of mental health concerns. Montano et al. (2016) studied the employees of leaders with different styles and found that leaders who fell under the “destructive leadership” style (e.g., authoritarianism, manipulative behaviours, aggressiveness, etc.) led to increases of stress within their employees. Their findings also indicated that employees tend to lash out against the uninvolved and co-workers in situations where they weren’t able to directly retaliate.

Some research also suggests that operational stress is distinctly different, therefore, the mechanisms towards addressing this issue need to be taken seriously. Teoh et al.’s study (2020) on stress predictors in firefighters found that certain traits that are effective mitigating factors in job control were not effective at mitigating those in operational stressors. These results suggest the need to apply different lenses when viewing the job.

It is possible to quantity the impact that an organization can have on someone under its roof. But firefighting isn’t a typical workplace. The people we work with are often much more than co-workers. From the strong sense of community and comradery of those in the volley world, to the close-knit relationships we can develop with our crews grinding out 24-hour shifts, we often have a connection to each other that people outside of this world don’t understand. And this isn’t remiss in the research.

For instance, a growing body of evidence shows post-traumatic growth—healing from traumatic situations—has the after effect of making someone stronger and more resilient, over and above their functioning prior to the trauma (Despotes et al., 2016). Additionally, belongingness to one’s organization may be a bolstering effect. Armstrong et al.’s 2015 study on belongingness found that the strength of belongingness was a mediating factor against the organizational stressors that they felt. However, their research does not identify whether belongingness is mediating against all organizational factors or just some. So if leadership is perceived as abysmal by those underneath, is that belongingness to the fire culture strong enough to overpower what going on in that hall? That research is still to be done, but I suspect that the type of stressors felt will be acutely important.

It may seem like a moot point if you’re a frontline firefighter reading this. There may be little that you are able to effectively change at the organizational level with its stifling effect exaggerated with the larger department that you are a part of. So in some sense this is for the leaders. Yet, there is always something that even the frontline probie can take away. In recent research on UK firefighters, Payne and Kinman (2020) found some effective ways at mitigating some of the operational stressors. They identified that “problem-solving pondering”—working to solve a problem at work while not at work– was a helpful resource for lowering the distress created by conflicts at work. This was in contrast to persevering about the problem itself, without problem solving, which resulted in the exact opposite—increasing the distress. In fact, Payne and Kinman found it to be one of the “strongest predictors” in anxiety from work. Finding ways to effectively problem solve, instead of ruminating on how stuck one may be, is a pathway towards better mental health.

Mental health is much larger than calls. It’s even larger than a collection of calls. It’s a more holistic and encompassing risk that you are not able to escape, even when the bunker gear is hung to dry or the pager is off. The research clearly indicates a trend towards a more involved system of mental wellness that cannot stop when you leave your shift or return back to your house.

Mental wellness is not the ability to withstand stressors and traumas, though that is a part of it. Mental wellness is the ability to understand when you are under such stressors and act in accordance to what you need adjusted for the level of stress you may be under. Being mental health literate is imperative. But it is on you to engage in an ongoing and consistent mental wellness plan. Don’t wait until you develop serious issues to try and reach out for support. The road will be longer and harder at that point. Personal responsibility for wellness is so often shunned from the conversation. But this proactive approach may go a long way to buffering you against any ill effects, be it operational or occupational. It could further be the difference between a quicker recovery should you find yourself struggling and languishing due to the depth for which we may fall.

For the leaders, this is a wake-up call. Many of you have spent your entire lives in the field and have dedicated large portions of family and personal sacrifice in the calling. This is of course admirable. But do you wear the leadership scars of those who came before you? Did you learn to lead through the example of someone who led with the destructive patterns identified above? The problems that we see are not always one bad apple, but sometimes a bad barrel altogether. So if you know that morale is low, if you hear that the front line is disturbed, you can still do what you need to try and uncover and realign. Leading needs to be as much about humility as it is innovation and good ole “getting the job done”. Your staff depend on such changes.  And only you have the ability to make those changes.

Armstrong D, Shakespeare-Finch J, & Shochet I. (2016). Organizational belongingness mediates the relationship between sources of stress and posttrauma outcomes in firefighters. Psychological trauma: theory, research, practice, and policy, 8(3), 343.

Beaton RD, Murphy SA. (1993). Sources of occupational stress among firefighter/EMTs and firefighter/paramedics and correlations with job-related outcomes. Prehospital and Disaster Medicine, 8(2), 140-50.

Despotes AM, Valentiner DP, & London M (2016). Resiliency and Posttraumatic Growth. The Wiley Handbook of the Psychology of Mass Shootings, 331-349.

Montano D, Reeske A, Franke F, & Hüffmeier J. (2017). Leadership, followers’ mental health and job performance in organizations: A comprehensive meta‐analysis from an occupational health perspective. Journal of Organizational Behavior, 38(3), 327-350.

Payne N, Kinman G. (2020). Job demands, resources and work-related well-being in UK firefighters. Occupational Medicine (Lond). pii: kqz167. doi: 10.1093/occmed/kqz167. [Epub ahead of print].

Sawhney G, Jennings KS, Britt TW, & Sliter MT (2018). Occupational stress and mental health symptoms: Examining the moderating effect of work recovery strategies in firefighters. Journal of Occupational Health Psychology, 23(3), 443–456.

Teoh KRH, Lima E, Vasconcelos A, Nascimento E, Cox T. (2020). Trauma and work factors as predictors of firefighters’ psychiatric distress. Occupational Medicine (Lond). pii: kqz168. [Epub ahead of print].

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Nick Halmasy is a former firefighter and fire instructor with a decade of experience in the service. He has completed a Master’s of Arts in Counselling Psychology and is a Registered Psychotherapist with a clinical practice specialty in first responders mental health. Nick started After the Call to develop and disseminate free mental health resources to both First Responders and their Families.