Trending Topics

Inside your ‘stress zones’: Effective stress management for executive chief fire officers

How to select the right quick-action technique – completion, delegation or relegation – to help mitigate the impact of stressors

Stress Level Indicator Vector Illustration with a Color Coded Gauge from Low to High Stress

Nataliia Hruts/Getty Images

Editor’s Note: Cobb County, Georgia, will host the 96th Southeastern Association of Fire Chiefs (SEAFC)/Georgia Association of Fire Chief’s (GAFC) conference July 15-17 at the Renaissance Atlanta Waverly Hotel and Cobb Galleria. The conference is dedicated to fire service professionals from across the Southeast, where they will network with peers, discuss the latest trends, see a variety of keynote speeches, and attend various breakout sessions, workshops and events. Learn more and register here.

By Dr. Michael A. Cunningham and Dr. Bita Shahidi

Depression, anxiety and substance abuse problems are plaguing firefighters. The dramatic increase in call volume, the exposure to traumatic emergency incidents, and the reduction in workforce are leading causes for the rise in behavioral and physical health issues within public safety.

No one is immune to the negative impact of stress, even executive chief officers. They may not be on the front line responding to emergency incidents, but executive chief officers are faced with making difficult strategic-level decisions that impact the future for their organization. These officers are responsible for balancing available resources against the wants and needs of internal (personnel) and external (citizens, visitors, community organizations and elected officials) stakeholders. The health and wellbeing of personnel, constraints on budget, declining applications numbers, retention challenges, and the ongoing changes to pension plans force these leaders to make difficult decisions. Even though these individuals raised their hand and agreed to take on this responsibility, it does not make them impervious to poor stress management and the resulting health hazards.

Furthermore, effectively managing stress is vital for the wellbeing of the department’s personnel and organizational culture. When the executive command staff displays obvious and prolonged symptoms of distress, it can significantly impact how the employees view the stability of the department and its leadership. Lowered morale, increased attrition, and signs of “quiet quitting” will be seen throughout the rank-and-file, ultimately preventing the organization from fulfilling its mission to serve the public.

Good stress vs. bad stress

Stress can be divided into two categories: eustress and distress.

Eustress is the normal everyday stress that you anticipate and manage in a healthy, efficient and effective manner. In fact, eustress is thought of as being “good stress” because it helps you feel “confident, adequate, and stimulated.” For example, taking on new tasks that challenge you to develop new skills and expand your knowledge or meeting new people on your project team can be a kind of useful stress, as it can motivate you as you step outside of your comfort zone. Eustress encourages personal growth as you work toward achieving a desired result.

However, when you feel overwhelmed by a situation, then distress can occur. The inability to adequately manage deadlines, the lack of resources, or the perception of being placed in a “no-win” situation involving high stakes can result in distress. When left unmanaged, distress can manifest into feelings of anxiety, depression and pain, leading to other significant health issues.

Effective stress management in all four stress zones

Stress cannot be avoided, but it can be effectively managed following three steps:

  • Step 1: Recognize that you are encountering stress.
  • Step 2: Analyze how you are categorizing stressful events.
  • Step 3: Determine the best course for effective stress management.

Recognizing that you are encountering stress is the first step in being able to take a proactive approach to managing it. From there, your mental and physical resilience play an important role in how you analyze and categorize events/tasks.

There are four “stress zones” – two eustress zones composed of easy-to-manage tasks/events that have either a predictable or an unpredictable outcome, and two distress zones composed of more difficult-to-manage events/tasks that have either a predictable or an unpredictable outcome. By understanding each of the four areas, you can begin to identify the right way to manage distress, with the ultimate goal being to recategorize it as eustress.

Let’s go through all four.

  • Eustress: Managed/predictable zone: Within this zone, events tend to be easily dealt with and have relatively predictable outcomes. This is where you have feelings of thriving because you know you are going to figure out a solution before any problems occur.
    • Example: Looking forward to heading up a new committee or speaking at a conference are typically manageable levels of stress that allow for personal growth. These events usually do not cause a great deal of distress for most chief-level officers.
  • Eustress: Managed/unpredictable zone: Next is the managed/unpredictable zone. These situations occur suddenly and without notice, and the outcome is not quickly known. However, your knowledge and experience with similar types of situations allows you to minimize distress by taking swift action. In the end, you can convert distress into eustress by using the event as a learning experience.
    • Example: You are informed at the last minute that you must speak to a group of reporters about an emergency incident involving injured firefighters. Even though you were not expecting this to occur, you are able to manage distress by pausing, readjusting your previous schedule, gathering the necessary information pertaining to the current situation, and then calling upon your experience to successfully manage the occasion. However, if you are lacking the knowledge, skills abilities or other personality characteristics (KSAOs) required to adequately manage the situation, your stress level may increase, sending you into one of the next two described distress zones.
  • Distress: Unmanaged/predictable zone: It is within the unmanaged/predictable zone where you begin to feel the effects of distress. These are events that you know will be occurring but are unable to determine a means for managing them effectively. The overwhelmed sensation is a result of you feeling obliged to let the situation occur due to a perceived lack of experience, knowledge or ability to remedy the event.
    • Examples: You will see this type of distress in events such as sudden scheduling conflicts, unaccounted for budgetary obligation, or systemic morale problems among personnel. For instance, low staffing causes overtime budget overrun. There is the feeling that there is little that can be done to mitigate the circumstances because no matter what decision you make, there will be a predictable negative outcome. The feeling of helplessness can build and cause you to feel a sense of inadequacy or the belief that you are not a good fit for your position. Sometimes, this will be referred to as the “Peter Principle,” or the concept that a person has risen to a level of respective incompetence.
  • Distress: Unmanaged/unpredictable zone: The final, and most impactful, zone involves those unmanaged/unpredictable stressors you encounter that cause us to quickly feel extremely overwhelmed because you feel like you could never attain a successful outcome regardless of your level of knowledge and experience. The compounding effects of these stressors can lead to significant health issues if not dealt with properly.
    • Examples: Significant disciplinary actions against a close colleague, increase in the attrition rate within the department, or the sudden diagnosis of severe illness of an employee. These are those high impact/low occurrence events that can have a lasting negative effect throughout the organization. It does not take many of these types of stressors to cause executive-level command staff teams to fracture, leading others to question their ability to be good leaders for their department.

Quick-action techniques to manage stress

Now that you have recognized the stressor and analyzed how you categorize the stressor, it is now time to select the right quick-action technique for managing the negative effects of distress and recategorizing distress into eustress – completion, delegation or relegation. Let’s review each:

  • Completion: Complete the task as quickly as possible when possible. A useful guide is to use the two-minute rule. In his book “Getting Things Done,” David Allen addresses the value in tackling a task immediately so that it does not become a bigger obstacle later. A good rule is that when time, combined with experience and knowledge, allow for the event to be remedied quickly, then complete it. This action helps manage stress buildup, minimizing the likelihood of you moving into a higher stress zone. When enough of these tasks can be completed, the sense of accomplishment will build mental resilience and permit you to remain in the eustress zones.
  • Delegation: When the task cannot be completed quickly, then consider delegating it. Delegation allows you to better manage the number of stressful tasks that build up and lead to distress. However, there is a trade off when delegating tasks. Delegation of tasks does not necessarily remove you from the responsibility of getting the task completed. You must trust that the person to whom you are delegating the task will get it done within the timeframe established. If not, then delegating the task may cause you to migrate to a higher stress zone. Remember, when you delegate the task to someone, you are authorizing them to act on your behalf. As such, only delegate tasks when you have a good working relationship with the delegate, established lines of open communication, and trust that they have the necessary knowledge and experience to successfully complete the task on time. Additionally, it is imperative that you provide them with the correct instructions with clear expectations. When done properly, this technique can be very effective at mitigating increased stress levels.
  • Relegation: Through quick recognition and thorough analysis, you may determine that the task is important enough to be completed, but not as critical as some of the other tasks on your list based on resources. By relegating the task, you decide to reprioritize it as “less important” and temporarily move it to a lower position of importance. As with delegation, it is very important to know when it is appropriate to relegate a task. Relegation is used when you are overloaded with tasks that cannot be completed quickly or delegated appropriately. The sense of being overwhelmed causes a “mental freeze” that prevents you from effectively completing any of your required tasks. The increased stress experienced from not getting anything done must be dealt with accordingly or you will remain in a distress zone for a prolonged period. Prolonged time spent in a distress zone can break down resiliency and lead to significant health issues.

To relegate effectively, you must have a good understanding of your own knowledge and experience levels compared to the priority level of the tasks on your list. Additionally, you must be confident that no other department member can be delegated the task. This requires you to introspectively analyze whether you are deciding to relegate the task because you do not trust anyone else for delegation. When possible, attempt to initially complete or delegate the task to reduce your stress level before opting to relegate the task. However, when done properly and communicated quickly, relegating tasks can be effective at diminishing your stress level because it establishes clear boundaries for you and those around you.

Note: These quick-action techniques are not meant to overshadow the long-term benefits of adequate sleep, a good diet, regular exercise and a strong social network. Instead, they can be deployed to assist with the initial size-up of the stressful event and allow for a quick knock-down before the stress goes unfettered.

Final thoughts

It’s important to remember that the leaders within your department’s executive command staff are not immune to the negative effects of stress. Furthermore, we don’t always handle the same stressors in the same way. Based on the recognition and analysis of the stressful event, deploying the quick-action methods of completing tasks quickly when possible, delegating tasks to trusted and competent colleagues, and/or reprioritizing the task through relegation can significantly help with reducing distress into a manageable and predictable eustress level. These methods are not meant to take the place of long-term coping mechanisms for distress; however, the more you work toward implementing actions that can better manage stress, the better your organization will be at servicing its members and the public.

Dr. Michael A. Cunningham serves as chief of staff to the fire chief with Cobb County (Georgia) Fire & Emergency Services. He has spent his career as a firefighter and fire officer, as a training division instructor, and as a member of the administrative senior staff educating firefighters in the areas of fire behavior and firefighting tactics, leadership, career development, and diversity and inclusion. Cunningham has a Ph.D. in industrial and organizational psychology, a master’s degree in business administration, a bachelor’s degree in computer science, a bachelor’s degree in professional aeronautics, and an associate degree in avionic systems technology. Additionally, he received his Chief Fire Officer (CFO) designation from the CPSE Commission on Professional Credentialing, is a graduate of the University of Georgia Carl Vinson Institute of Government EXCEL Management Development program and is a member of the 2023 Cobb Chamber Leadership Cobb leadership program. Cunningham is a U.S. Air Force veteran and has served in the fire service since 2005.

Dr. Bita Shahidi is a board-certified Doctor of Physical Therapy, certified Life Coach, and professional speaker with over 20 years of experience empowering her clients to achieve stronger relationships, health and fitness goals, professional development objectives, and time and money freedom. Dr. Shahidi helps people return to a quality life by overcoming physical challenges that result from injury, as well as teaching people how to implement methods for conquering obstacles that limit their way of thinking.