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Employee assistance programs: Find the right firefighter-focused program

Many EAPs go beyond counseling resources to help members with nutrition, exercise, family dynamics and financial assistance

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It is crucial to select a program that fits the needs of your organization and its people.

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When it comes to the health and wellbeing of your members, an employee assistance program (EAP) is as essential as a weight room.

The Employee Assistance Society of North America (EASNA) defines an EAP as “an employer-sponsored service designed for personal or family problems, including mental health, substance abuse, various addictions, marital problems, parenting problems, emotional problems, or financial or legal concerns.” That all-encompassing definition seems to say it all, but not all EAPs are all-encompassing, nor are they all created equally. It is crucial to select a program that fits the needs of your organization and its people.

Firefighter stress

In the fire service, we tend to emphasize physical health. We encourage our members to eat well and exercise, and fire stations are usually equipped with workout facilities. In fact, it has become standard to require physical fitness activities while on shift. But where we tend to focus on physical health, we tend to avoid direct action around mental health. Firefighters are frequently and disproportionately exposed to mental and emotional trauma, as well as workplace and cultural stressors that others outside public safety simply don’t experience. According to a 2016 EASNA report, 40% of firefighters experienced significant emotional distress at work – a not-surprising statistic considering the repeated exposure to traumatic experiences, inconsistent sleep, long hours away from home, and hypervigilance associated with the job. As stoic and brave as many of us claim to be, we must accept, at some point, that these experiences can have a significant impact on both our body and mind.

As fire service leaders, our first concern related to mental health should be the safety and wellbeing of our members and those around them. Firefighters carry an increased risk of substance abuse, depression and suicide, so we should provide them with resources to combat these issues and cope with their effects.

Furthermore, our responsibility to provide behavioral health resources through an EAP affects more than just our members. Firefighters’ stress often extends into their homes. According to FireRescue1’s What Firefighters Want annual survey, 26% of firefighters identified that the job’s impact on their family was one of their top three stressors related to work, and of those 26%, 38% of them said the job’s impact on their family was their #1 work stressor.

In addition to the human need for employee assistance, there is also a business case. If your employees are suffering from marital problems, financial issues, emotional stress, depression or any behavioral health issue, it can have an adverse effect on your department’s operations. Employees experiencing depression, anxiety or work-related stress are more likely to use sick time and are less likely to perform at the top of their game. Morale can suffer when employees are unhappy, and failing to address these concerns can even lead to workplace conflicts, or worse, workplace violence. Bottom line: When an alarm comes in, we need everybody’s head in the game. So, it stands to reason that firefighters should have access to tools that help them through these things.

Mental healthcare is healthcare, and an effective EAP is an essential component for the wellness of your members. While you may already have peer support and critical incident stress debriefing (CISD) programs, those approaches are designed to help members with immediate or acute exposure to traumatic events while EAP covers their day-to-day needs.

Both the International Association of Fire Fighters (IAFF) and the International Association of Fire Chiefs (IAFC) understand the value of EAPs and recommend that affiliate organizations have one in place. What’s more, the Wellness-Fitness Initiative (WFI) is a joint program between the IAFC and IAFF that provides key resources, such as sample EAP procedures and best practices.

The need for these programs is not limited to career fire departments. An EAP is as essential for volunteer firefighters as it is for their paid counterparts. The National Volunteer Fire Council has an EAP-style program for its members to help with stress, depression, family issues, legal needs and financial concerns.

How to select and EAP program

There are myriad options available to fire departments, and some of them are great, but others leave something to be desired. Firefighters’ needs are different than the needs of employees in other fields, so a standard EAP may not be a good fit. For instance, some programs are marketed as public safety- or first responder-specific when, in fact, they are repackaged products that are geared toward the corporate world.

Some years ago, I knew of a firefighter who had reached out to an EAP counselor for some help with work-related anxiety only to be told that the counselor had no experience in dealing with fire service-based anxiety and had no resources to offer him. This EAP was part of a large healthcare conglomerate and was branded as a first responder-specific program but behind the scenes, it was a standard EAP whose counselors were reached through a special first responder phone number. The counselor was empathetic to the firefighter’s needs but was ultimately of little help. The firefighter had to find his own mental health practitioner.

In order to find an effective and appropriate program, you need to do your homework. In addition to researching the programs through the companies’ sales and marketing literature, ask for trial access to the product and its ancillary features, like smartphone apps. Read online reviews, and reach out to your peers through various professional organizations and networking groups. Ask other fire service leaders about their experiences with the EAPs they use. An effective program should provide access to counselors with training and experience in first responder mental health.

Furthermore, a good EAP shouldn’t be limited to counseling resources. Factors like nutrition, exercise, family dynamics and financial stress all play a role in our mental health, and an EAP should provide resources in these areas as well. Many programs offer assistance with other aspects of life:

  • Financial management assistance
  • Couples or family therapy
  • Conflict resolution tools
  • Disease prevention tools
  • Child or eldercare resources

In addition to phone and in-person services, today’s EAPs are often supplemented by websites and apps to engage employees in different ways. EAPs are available through a variety of sources including health and hospital networks, health insurance providers, and standalone wellness companies. Take the time to find the program and the provider that works for your organization and its people. This isn’t the time to purchase an off-the-shelf product to check a box on your wellness checklist. Finding the right EAP might take some time but that will be time well-spent.

Final thoughts

Firefighters are exposed to a variety of stressors throughout their careers, any of which can affect both their personal and professional lives. An effective EAP can help them deal with many of these stressors and might include some bonus features such as legal assistance, financial management, family conflict resolution and nutrition resources. Invest in a good employee assistance program to help improve the health and wellbeing of your people and their families.

Greg Rogers is a content developer for Lexipol with over two decades of experience in fire and emergency services. He is a retired battalion chief from the Ridge Road Fire District in Greece, New York, where he developed and implemented programs that improved service delivery and firefighter safety. He is a certified fire instructor with experience in emergency vehicle operations, engine company operations, and building construction. In addition to his fire service experience, Rogers has a background in maritime search and rescue and law enforcement with the U.S. Coast Guard and Coast Guard Reserve. Rogers holds a degree in fire protection and has studied at the National Fire Academy as well as the U.S. Coast Guard Chief Petty Officer Academy.