The impact of control – or lack of control – on chronic stress in firefighters

Studies show that when members are given space to make consequential decisions with greater control, stress levels decrease


There is no doubt that people are experiencing a lot of stress these days. Economic pressures, a lingering pandemic, problems with access to goods and services – all of these factors contribute to feelings of anxiety, pressure and being inconvenienced.

Firefighters experience unique sources of stress in addition to those felt by the public. Unusual work schedules, time away from family, working and living in close quarters with others and, of course, challenging response calls can make firefighting a difficult vocation.

When people talk about stress, they tend to generalize it as anything that causes anxiety, depression, pressure, fear or a sense of inconvenience, while medical professionals define stress more narrowly as a physical response to stimuli that includes the effects of the stress hormone cortisol.

Studies show that people who are in positions of higher authority and increased responsibility overall experience less stress than those who have little control over their decisions or circumstances.
Studies show that people who are in positions of higher authority and increased responsibility overall experience less stress than those who have little control over their decisions or circumstances. (Photo/Getty Images)

Cortisol assists in our body’s “fight or flight” response, and in short doses can save our lives. But stress is harmful when it becomes chronic rather than episodic – instead of feeling an adrenaline rush just before a big fire, you feel it all the time while at work. This constant state can take a physical toll on your body over time.

But not all experiences that are intense are harmfully stressful. And those people we think of as being more susceptible to work-related stress – typically those with higher ranks and responsibilities in organizations – might actually be doing better than people who seem at lower risk.

Does greater control over choices yield less stress?

Studies from the University of London and Harvard University conclude that damaging stress is a combination of higher demand and lower control. They found that people who are in positions of higher authority and increased responsibility overall experience less stress than those who have little control over their decisions or circumstances.

Certainly, people in high-level positions have greater demands on them. But if they can control their responses and see positive outcomes from their actions, this higher demand can be exhilarating rather than stressful.

But what about those who have similar demands but less control? Consider, for example, battalion chiefs who have responsibilities heaped on them but who may have every decision second-guessed and undermined by a supervising chief. Or a company officer who is given a long list of tasks to accomplish but is denied any say in how to plan the workdays. Or an engineer who is berated when any type of mechanical issue arises but has no authority to solve or prevent those problems. All these scenarios are a recipe for serious stress responses on the job.

The research shows that one clear and fairly easy way to diminish workplace stress is to pay attention to the relationship between demand and control. Positions that have higher demand must also include increased control. If you’re giving someone responsibility – whether it is driving a fire truck, managing an incident or running a public education program – you must also give them authority to make decisions within the scope of that task, and not second-guess or micromanage them.

It’s also important to remember that every position in the emergency services has its share of high demands. Yes, chief officers have additional responsibilities, but they also usually have more authority and support in doing that job. Those in lower-ranking positions may have more and more demands placed on them over time, but never feel any increase in the control they have over their circumstances.

How to alleviate chronic stress in firefighters

Not everything intense or difficult is harmfully stressful in a physiological way. Think of an experienced rock climber tackling a difficult new route. Some of the biological signs of stress may be there – dry mouth, increased blood pressure and pulse – but the effect is excitement, thrill, a kind of high, like what firefighters feel during a “good fire” or a successful rescue.

The harm comes when people are chronically overburdened and, at the same time, disempowered. This combination can affect people at any level of the organization but is a particular risk for those in middle management positions, who feel pressure from both directions yet may lack authority or control to make meaningful decisions.

When considering how best to reduce stress in your organization, this combination of factors is a good place to start.

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