Personal stress management: Tips for firefighters reporting high stress
While some firefighters are taking proactive steps to minimize the impact of stress, many others are caught in a vicious cycle of harmful behavior
Download the What Firefighters Want digital edition, detailing survey results and digging into issues of staffing and stress. And check out the on-demand webinar, which further explores issues of recruitment and retention, scope of work, and work and personal stress solutions.
We didn’t need a survey to know that firefighting is a stressful job, but it is helpful to know what is causing that stress and consider ways to best manage that stress.
The 2023 What Firefighters Want survey asked firefighters, “On a scale of 1-10, how stressful is your job?” More than three-quarters of respondents chose 6, 7, 8, 9 or 10.
Remember, stress isn’t always bad. Good stress might be experienced while solving a challenging extrication situation, arriving just in time to make a rescue attracts or accomplishing a difficult training evolution with your company. This type of stress likely attracts people to the profession and keeps them engaged throughout their career.
But not all stress is good or healthy, especially stress that is out of a firefighter’s control.
When asked “What are the most stressful aspects of your job?” poor agency leadership (43%) was chosen more than any other choice, narrowly beating out lack of staffing (42%).
While there are countless articles and advice columns on how to manage up, improving the leader above you is easier said than done, making this most common cause of work-related stress difficult to impossible to manage. Instead, firefighters ought to focus on minimizing the impact of undesirable stress and managing it regularly, especially off duty.
Stress management steps
Consider the pillars of health and wellness that are critical for stress management:
- Adequate and restful sleep
- Healthy eating and hydration
- Regular exercise
- Participation in activities and interests
- Spending time with friends and family
With these pillars in mind, the What Firefighters Want survey asked firefighters, “What non-work-related activities are you doing or have you tried in the past three years to manage your stress?” Improving overall health (sleep, nutrition, and/or exercise) was the most common selection among respondents at 70%. The second most common stress management tactic was increasing time with family and friends, with 52% of respondents indicating work in this area. This is good news, as firefighters who prioritize their overall health, as well as increased time with family and friends, are likely to be less stressed on and off the job.
Unfortunately, many firefighters are caught in a vicious cycle. Their stress level is impacting their ability to engage in non-fire department activities, ability to sleep and time to exercise, and their relationships with family – the things they want to do the most off-duty to manage their stress. (For more on this topic, see “‘Buyer beware’: A message from stressed-out firefighters” in the digital edition.)
Look at the results of the question, “When thinking about your experience with stress, how much do you agree with the following statements?”
The antidotes to stress – sleep, exercise, eating well and doing things with the people you want to be with – are critical for every firefighter. But stress makes it more difficult to do these things. So, what is a firefighter to do? Here are several ideas:
Manage stress during your shift. Many firefighters have the opportunity to exercise, sleep and eat well on duty. Optimize those experiences as much as possible throughout the shift.
Participate in employer provided wellness activities. If your employer offers on-duty yoga, the chance to pet a therapy dog, or visit with a personal trainer or nutritionist, do it! Not only are you taking advantage of something that will benefit you, but you are also communicating to your co-workers, boss and subordinates that health and wellness, critical for stress management, are important.
Stop working when you leave work. Every work-related text, email or phone call you read, reply to or respond to off duty reconnects you with work and work-related stress. If your position allows you to do so, turn off notifications, develop a habit of putting your smartphone out of physical reach and visual view, and take up a hobby that fully engages your mind and body, in turn out-competing the compulsion to be connected to work.
If your position doesn’t allow you to fully disconnect when off the job, I suspect you are more connected and available than your employer requires. Know your employer’s expectations and potentially reset expectations for off-duty availability. Make sure you are differentiating between a habit of off-duty availability that you’ve developed versus an actual requirement of your employment or volunteer service.
Create healthy rituals that put you, your family and your friends first. The regimented firefighter duty schedule – station duties, training, meals and fitness – prioritizes things that are important for culture and readiness. Similarly, ritualize and schedule off-duty time. Rituals – walking the dog, going for a run or bike, or attending a religious service as soon as the shift ends – can create a spirit, mind and body transition from your firefighter role to your off-duty roles of parent, spouse or friend. Cook a healthy family meal and eat it around the kitchen table, as you do at work, to hear stories of the day or recent days from your spouse, partner or children.
Predictability of mood, energy and availability – that come from rituals and routines – are comforting to friends and family. If given the choice between helping reduce your stress or causing you stress, more often than not they want to help you.
Leaders, alarms are ringing
Finally, if you are a chief or company officer, take stress and your role in causing stress seriously. Almost half of survey respondents (42%) indicated that their stress level has caused them to consider leaving the fire service. That is an alarming number that requires urgent and ongoing attention. What are you doing to improve your leadership skills while also supporting the health and wellness of your personnel?