A family affair: Work stressors quickly become family stressors
Fire families often bear an unacknowledged burden of stress rooted in staffing challenges
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Firefighter families face unique stressors due to the nature of their loved ones' profession. This can include safety concerns leading to heightened anxiety, fear or worry for their well-being. The irregular work hours, shifts, deployments or callouts also disrupt the family routine and create challenges in coordinating family time together.
Firefighters may also be required to be away from home for extended periods of time, making it particularly challenging to communicate with them or have their support when family emergencies happen. Not to mention the non-firefighter spouse may experience strain in managing the many household duties, childcare and other family obligations when the firefighters are on shift or gone.
Out of 2,200 firefighter respondents, 26% of firefighters identified that the job’s impact on their family was one of their top three stressors related to work. That’s over a quarter of firefighters at varying ranks saying, “This career takes a toll on my family, and it’s one of my main stressors related to this work!” And of those 26%, 38% of them said the job’s impact on their family was their #1 work stressor.
It’s no surprise to me that family impact is rising to the top of the list for firefighters because 70% of firefighters in this survey reported that their stress level has increased due to staffing issues, and almost half (48%) agree that there is more mandatory overtime due to staffing issues.
Unfortunately, 46% of respondents also said they have considered leaving the fire service due to their #1 stressor. I am not surprised here, as I have witnessed multiple families consider this based on the family impact. I see spouses or partners becoming heavily invested and at times frustrated with how the department is handling, or seemingly not handling, staffing challenges. In what world do the spouses of any organization become so enraged and have so many strong opinions about how administration is doing their job? In this one!
Why are fire families so invested in the job? It’s because our whole lives revolve around the job, and the problems that arise, such as staffing challenges, steal valuable moments from us and cause more stress and strain. Firefighters feel the family impact as well. When firefighters were asked about their experience with stress, 47% agreed with the statement, “My stress level is negatively impacting my relationships with family."
I’m married to a California fire captain, work full time, and we’re raising two young children under the age of 6. As a fire spouse, I experience a direct correlation between department staffing issues and mandatory overtime and our family stress. It’s no secret that every additional shift leaves the non-firefighter spouse burdened with continually handling more of the family responsibilities. Furthermore, low staffing means our loved one is demanded to work more, which robs us of time with them, not to mention the potential loss of future years with them due to the increased exposures they face at work.
“Why should your job take priority every time!?” “You were supposed to be home to pick up the kids!?” These are not responses any firefighter looks forward to; they cause a lot of stress for those individuals who tend to define themselves as helpers and providers. It never sits well for a firefighter when they know they are disappointing their family over and over again. They feel guilt build up every time they hear how challenged their spouse or kid is at home due to the increased demands at work.
Firefighters feel good in control – and that’s what the job is all about, right? Someone’s in trouble so firefighters show up, take control and do what they can. The current demands being placed on them, however, makes them feel completely out of control, which is when you hear, “What do you want me to do about it?!” in response, or “It is what it is, I don’t know what to say.”
4 ways to show support
If you’re in a leadership role, you get it. You can remember the days of family hardship. Can you also see how times have changed? Both the demands of the job and the demands on families at home have increased, or at least changed in interesting ways, since you were in that position. Or maybe you’re going through it right alongside those you lead.
So, what can organizations and leaders do to support their firefighters with the family stress they are experiencing? Following are four things you can provide as an organization or company officer that will better support firefighters with the stress they are experiencing when it comes to their family.
1. Predictability and flexibility. Sometimes opting for rules and policies that allow families a little choice and the ability to plan ahead can be harder for those in charge of staffing or scheduling. Please understand that this can make a huge difference for a family, though!
This is the difference in my husband unexpectedly telling me at 9 p.m. that he’s not going to be home tomorrow, forcing me to scramble to create a plan versus planning a week out for a day we both agree on that works best out of the options that he can sign up for because he’s at the top of the force-back list. When we have a week to figure out the schedule and ask for family and friends help, it’s better for my stress level, his stress level and our marriage because, as is the case with any couple, we’re less likely to fight when there’s not an immediate crisis to be handled. Consider what your department can do to help families better manage the increased demands knowing they rely on this firefighter – a lot.
2. Understanding. When firefighters are in distress due to family stress, it makes a leader’s job harder. The firefighter is likely to be less focused, less productive and probably impacting the entire crew due to everyone living and working in such close quarters. As frustrating as this can be, remember this is their family – the most important people in their life. “Suck it up, buttercup, this is my job” doesn’t work. That type of interaction can be a quick trip to divorce talk, and I’m sure you know how much more challenged the firefighter will be if they go down that road.
Instead of reacting to this moment with, “Hey, we got a job to do here,” try giving them a moment to vent to you. Pull them aside, be calm and ask how they are doing. When people can share the load, it has the power to reduce their stress. When you remain calm and understanding while they vent, they in turn can become calm based on your modeling and even start to think more clearly. You don’t need to give them a whole day but at least a moment of “I get it.” Once you feel you’ve given them a sense that you do in fact care about what’s going on for them, you can come back to, “I’m still your boss and here’s the expectation right now.”
Bottom line: Consider times when you can provide a little more understanding for the firefighters around you and what they are going through when their family is expressing extreme distress.
3. Open invitation for families. When times are tough, and firefighters are spending a lot more time at work, please try to find ways to welcome the families to the station. This can help a family in so many ways. First, the firefighter gets to see them and spend some quality time with them even though it’s a shift day. Also, kids benefit from being more understanding and connected to this career that takes their parent away so often. Also, the children and spouse get to see a little more into what life might be like at work. As a family member, we know we share our firefighter with you, but it’s weird if I’m sharing my firefighter with you all the time and I don’t even know who you are! It’s also so helpful to connect with other spouses and children who are going through the same thing because it immediately makes us feel less alone in this unique life and provides great perspective that we’re not the only ones out there with challenges. This can be easy, and even station specific, versus having to include the whole department.
My husband and his crew recently invited families over on a weekend day for brunch – no special occasion, just to get everyone together. This was wonderful. It gave us something to do for the day since it’s a far drive. My kids enjoyed meeting the other firefighters and exploring the fire engine, and I got to meet and connect with another spouse. Consider ways you can help the families around you feel more comfortable and connected to this career that they share their loved one with.
4. Acknowledgement. Don’t avoid the elephant in the room. If you know families are taking a hit, acknowledge it. Ask while everyone’s at the dinner table one shift how everyone’s families are doing with all the overtime. Get a sense of how people are doing.
Family stress is stress that the firefighter is likely taking with them to work. Ask people one on one when you know they are in a particularly challenging situation. The more the firefighters themselves get to share their challenges, the more their stress reduces because they begin to realize they are not alone or that people around them care. Note: If you want this to be effective, I suggest that you make sure to not allow others to derail this conversation by making it a joke or providing terribly unhelpful advice that’s meant to make people laugh.
Another acknowledgement could be thanking the families themselves for dealing with some of the hardship. Firefighters get thanked and waved to by the community, but the family often silently sacrifices time with their loved one and no one ever acknowledges their part in this big picture. Consider ways you can acknowledge that you see how hard this might be for families and help families feel recognized for their part in this career.
5. Provide family support services. Fire departments should offer stress and behavioral health support to firefighter families to promote overall well-being, resilience and even job satisfaction for the firefighter. By providing resources and tools, families can better navigate the unique stressors they are continually faced with and build coping strategies that will help them better manage any future challenges that arise. Support programs and supportive family networks aid in early intervention, facilitate work-life integration, and can positively impact retention rates. Departments can sometimes adjust the benefits offered to employees so they also cover family members since addressing family stressors will also enhance the holistic well-being of firefighters and help create a supportive home environment to ensure their long-term commitment to the department.
Step up for your members
Being a firefighter is a stressful career, and beyond the calls, it is evident that firefighters are experiencing significant stress related to the impact of the job on their families. Recognizing the importance of family well-being and its direct correlation to the mental health and job performance is crucial. By considering how you and your department can further support the families within your organization, you will not only help to strengthen these families but you can also increase the well-being and effectiveness of your membership as a whole.
Editor's note: We asked firefighters about the most- and least-satisfying aspects of the job. The following statements come from firefighters who selected "impact on family" as the least-satisfying aspect of their job.