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3 things firefighters need to know about wellness programs

A successful wellness program can improve overall health and reduce costs, and it should include physical fitness, stress management and mental health elements


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By Sara Jahnke for FireRescue1 BrandFocus

Firefighter health and safety should be top priorities for every department. In addition to following safety regulations like OSHA and standards like NFPA, it’s important to promote a culture of well-being. Formal wellness and prevention programs provide a way to help firefighters manage their own health and decrease the potential for costly and debilitating illness down the road.

By engaging in health and wellness programs, firefighters can enjoy improved health, and it can help them and their departments reap the benefits of higher morale, increased productivity and lower healthcare costs. (image/Getty: kali9)
By engaging in health and wellness programs, firefighters can enjoy improved health, and it can help them and their departments reap the benefits of higher morale, increased productivity and lower healthcare costs. (image/Getty: kali9)

By engaging in health and wellness programs, firefighters can enjoy improved health, and it can help them and their departments reap the benefits of higher morale, increased productivity and lower healthcare costs. Here are three things you need to know about wellness programs:

1. Wellness programs work

Firefighting is a strenuous job, and data from the United States Fire Administration identifies heart attacks as a leading cause of death for active-duty firefighters.[i] In fact, IAFC is launching the “If You Don't Feel Well, Don't Make it Your Farewell” initiative in February 2020 to help reduce the number of firefighter cardiac deaths.

The good news is that wellness programs can help. Various studies over the past decade have shown that an increased focus on physical fitness and overall wellness, including emotional support, can help decrease rates of obesity and anxiety – significant risk factors for cardiovascular problems. These programs can help individual firefighters be more fit and less likely to smoke, as well as more engaged on the job.

You don’t have to start from scratch. Many fire service organizations and health insurance companies provide wellness programs. For example, Cigna offers customizable wellness programs to help create convenient ways to help individuals take control of stress and make healthier decisions. In addition to physical health, many fire service organizations offer resources for emotional well-being and dealing with on-the-job trauma, like Taking Care of Our Own from the National Fallen Firefighter’s Association.

Even low-intervention programs can be effective. Volunteer firefighters participated in a test of an online wellness program designed by and for firefighters that included components for fitness, nutrition and behavioral health. Control departments not following the program experienced weight gain, while departments that implemented the program reported an average weight loss between 1.7 and 2.8 pounds across all participants and between 2.3 and 3.1 pounds among firefighters who started out as overweight or obese.[ii]

Lower rates of obesity and higher fitness not only helps improve outcomes for individual firefighters but also helps reduce risk for injury and chronic health conditions. Not only are wellness programs good for individuals, they can also help boost the bottom line for your department by driving lower absenteeism and lower costs in workers compensation claims and healthcare premiums. Productivity, morale and retention may also increase.

2. The best wellness programs focus on more than just fitness

Fitness is important, but good wellness programs go beyond just exercise and include nutrition and a focus on behavioral health and stress management, because all these elements are connected. To maximize the benefit of a wellness program, be sure your program addresses both the physical and mental aspects of health.

Stress management is particularly important. By one estimate, the effects of stress cost up to $187 billion a year.[iii] (Take this free quiz to assess your stress level and get tips on what you can do to manage your stress.)

Again, fitness, nutrition and behavioral health are intertwined. People struggling with anxiety or stress could have a difficult time finding the motivation to work out and eat healthy, which may lead to a decline in both physical and mental health. But exercise can help with both challenges, helping to improve not just a person’s mood, but also helping increase the motivation for eating healthy, which in turn affects overall health.

Research also suggests that what you eat affects how you feel – in other words, diet and nutrition play a significant role in mental health as well as physical. [iv] While more research is needed to understand and unravel the relationships between food and feeling, even interventions with modest effects can help improve mental health. A good wellness program will provide strategies and support for positive choices in all of these areas.

3. Consider your needs and weigh your options

Firefighters have plenty of options for wellness programs, both for departments and for individuals. Finding what works for you or your department takes some research. Consider both fire-specific and more broad options.

The IAFF/IAFC Wellness Fitness Initiative lays out a comprehensive department wellness program that includes everything from fitness programming to annual medical exams and behavioral health programs.

There also are programs outside the fire service that can provide all the necessary resources firefighters need. Look at what programs are available through your local city or county resources, or through your health insurance carrier. Insurance companies have recognized the benefit of investing in health and wellness programs both for individuals and companies and invested in developing effective programs to help improve health across all domains through a holistic approach.

A key benefit of programs like these is that they come already packaged and are easier to start up than building something from scratch – and many can be tailored based on what you and your department need. For example, Cigna offers a variety of options, including a health and fitness app to help keep individuals motivated.

Get started

How do you know which wellness program to choose? Pick one that meets your needs and that you can start and get going sooner rather than later. Sometimes the thought of implementing a new, comprehensive program can be overwhelming, so departments may add it to their “to do” list, but then it can get lost in the shuffle of priorities.

The old adage that every journey starts with a small step is particularly true for wellness programs. The hardest part is just getting started. Once the program gets started, there are always ways to improve, change and get creative – but that all comes with time. Just get started.

About the author

Sara A. Jahnke, Ph.D. is the director of the Center for Fire, Rescue and EMS Health Research at the National Development and Research Institutes. She was the principal investigator on two large-scale, DHS-funded studies of the health and readiness of the U.S. fire service and on a study on the health of women firefighters. She is a co-investigator of several studies focused on fitness, nutrition and health behaviors in firefighters. She completed her doctorate in psychology with a health emphasis at the University of Missouri – Kansas City and the American Heart Associations' Fellowship on the Epidemiology and Prevention of Cardiovascular Disease. You can reach her at sara.jahnke@firerescue1.com.


NOTES & REFERENCES

Cigna products and services are offered by Cigna Health and Life Insurance Company or its affiliates. This article is not intended for residents of New Mexico.

[i] “Firefighter Fatalities in the United States in 2018.” U.S. Fire Administration, September 2019, https://www.usfa.fema.gov/downloads/pdf/publications/firefighter_fatalities_2018.pdf

[ii] “Occupationally Tailored, Web-Based, Nutrition and Physical Activity Program for Firefighters: Cluster Randomized Trial and Weight Outcome.” Day RS, Jahnke SA, Haddock CK, Kaipust CM, Jitnarin N, Poston WSC. Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine, October 2019, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/31348415.

[iii] “The cost of work-related stress to society: A systematic review.” Hassard, et al. The Journal of Occupational Health Psychology Vol. 23, January 2018, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/28358567.

[iv] “The role of diet and nutrition on mental health and wellbeing.” Owen L, Corfe B. Proceedings of the Nutrition Society, November 2017, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/28707609.

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