Supervisor stress: The far-reaching impact of angst
How officers mitigate these stressors for the benefit of themselves, their crew and the department as a whole
Being a firefighter can be stressful, and company and chief officers experience more than their share. And while stressors have significant impacts on the officers experiencing the stress firsthand, it’s no surprise that the stress can seep out, impacting other members and subordinates in their orbit, often infecting them with similar stress.
FireRescue1’s What Firefighters Want survey of over 2,000 fire service members tackled the issue of supervisor stress, with several critical findings:
· 32% of respondents reported that their supervisors do not handle stress well;
· 53% said that their supervisor’s stress level impacts the general well-being of other members; and
· 51% said their supervisor’s stress level directly impacts their stress level.
Targeting company officers specifically, what types of stress do they face, and what can they do to mitigate these stressors for the benefit of the individual, their crew and the department as a whole?
One major source of stress for company officers is a lack of readiness or preparation for the position. This can occur in a variety of forms. A new officer may be lacking in some necessary skills such as incident command, report writing, prevention and inspection expertise, or technical rescue. Deficiencies in these areas might lead to an officer feeling insecure or fearful and could also lead to overcompensation or defensiveness.
All of this is a recipe for stress, further compounded by the expanding scope of work expectations – nearly 50% of survey respondents said the expanded scope of work has negatively impacted their health and well-being.
Fortunately, all these problems can be solved through training, which should take place long before someone is in the position of being a full-time officer. Most firefighters like training on applicable job skills, especially if it is done in a way that is inclusive and supportive rather than competitive and judgmental. Such training can happen in several ways: informal practice among a crew, a formal class at the training center, or a specialized class taken through another agency.
Part of the difficulty in managing stress comes back to the dynamic nature of the job. Many survey respondents reported that the expanding scope of work compromises training.
There are other important skills that a company officer must have, and unfortunately, they tend to get less attention both in the lead-up to the position and then once a person has been promoted. These skills include things like conflict management and mediation, harassment prevention and mitigation, coaching and counseling, discipline, and effective communication. Many company officers arrive at their first stations with virtually no training in these areas, and little support for the remainder of their careers.
The good news is that all these topics involve skills that can be taught. Just as someone can learn and practice handling a rescue tool or writing a good report, so can they learn to communicate more clearly, defuse conflict effectively, and stop inappropriate behavior in its early stages. But such skills must be taught and prioritized at the organizational level, with consistent approaches and standards understood by all. This is not an area where individuals should be freelancing.
Mental readiness and support
Another potential source of stress is lack of readiness for the position at a personal or psychological level. Someone may have taken classes on every pertinent topic and aced the promotional test and still not feel personally ready to fill the role.
Years ago, when I was working with a large urban fire department, I asked officers what the hardest aspect for them was in adjusting to the new role. Consistently I heard, “It was going from being one of the guys to the one who is in charge.” Some firefighters might feel pressured to go for the officer’s position because they have a certain level of seniority or experience on the job, or because others are pushing them to do so. But their hearts may not be in it. They’d rather remain a firefighter or driver – demonstrating their expertise in those roles and being “one of the guys” versus being the one in charge.
Being an officer is different. There can be a sense of isolation in the position. If a company officer is dealing with issues in the station or experiencing personal stress, where can that individual go for help and support? Do they know what resources are available to them and are they willing to use them?
In the FireRescue1 survey, nearly three-quarters (72%) of respondents reported that they knew how to access their EAP for support; however, only 35% said they trusted their EAP for such support. Likewise, two-thirds (67%) said that they knew how to access their peer support team, but only 38% said they felt that their peer support teams were well trained.
This is a critical disconnect. It does little good to have support systems in place if members do not trust them and are hesitant to use them. Some departments have taken the first step to create support services and teams, but then do not give those entities the kind of ongoing support they need to thrive. Unfortunately, it is also true that sometimes those in leadership roles will pay lip service to the importance of such support services but undermine them in less formal interactions.
On a less formal basis, do company officers feel confident that their immediate supervisors will listen to their concerns and offer supportive advice, or do they fear that those individuals will respond with judgment and ostracism? Are battalion chiefs and similarly ranked individuals prepared to act in these roles? The FireRescue1 survey reveals that only about half of respondents (54%) agreed that their department leadership recognizes the stressors faced by its members.
Everyone needs training in these areas, but the needs and concerns of those in specific positions are different. A company officer faces challenges presented by members of the crew. A battalion chief may be dealing with an entire shift and be overwhelmed with administrative duties that make attention to individuals difficult.
The first step to solving any problem is recognizing and defining it. If firefighters feel their supervisors are unaware or indifferent to the stress they face, in any position within the department, not only will this allow those stress levels to increase but will also likely create a disconnect or bad feelings between those of different ranks. Supporting this idea, in the survey, only 35% of respondents felt their supervisors acknowledged the stress they experienced, and even fewer (34%) said their supervisors took action to address that stress.
Formal programs can help, but just simple acknowledgement that someone is dealing with challenging circumstances in their personal or professional lives can go a long way toward keeping communication open. A casual conversation, a shared experience, or just the willingness to listen patiently and without judgment can have disproportionately positive impacts. These contacts can be informal and spontaneous or may occur through more formal mentoring relationships.
Personal vs. professional stressors
One thing that is clear is that the best leaders bring their whole selves to the job, and they should want their coworkers to do the same. For this reason, it is impossible to completely compartmentalize one’s personal life. If someone is going through a divorce, having issues with a sleepless newborn at home, or trying to figure out how to finance a child’s college tuition, all these things will affect that person’s performance and engagement on the job. Likewise, family members feel stress because of their loved one’s role on the job, and this stress affects that member as well. Departments have only recently recognized this dynamic as a source of stress that affects job performance and outcomes – an idea supported by survey respondents, with one-third (35%) reporting that their department offers stress or behavioral health support to firefighter families.
A fire department cannot resolve all the issues its members might have. Likewise, it is not the company officer’s job to be a psychologist and solve problems for others. But they must be observant and build relationships of trust so they can at least understand the challenges their coworkers are facing and offer support. Unfortunately, those officers may not feel that the same level of support is available for them.
The effects of officer stress on the crew are clear and damaging. Stressed-out people are often short-tempered. They can make bad decisions. They are often not the best listeners. They may isolate themselves from the crew. They can create a fearful and divisive atmosphere at work.
Ultimately, workplace stress is a safety issue. If someone is not at their best – physically, mentally, emotionally – they will not be performing the best actions and making the best decisions, on the fireground or elsewhere. And that affects everyone.