Building Sustainable Strategies into the Organizational Structure
First responders face unique challenges from high levels of stress and trauma in their demanding and often dangerous roles. To support their physical and mental well-being, it is crucial that organizations establish proactive workplace wellness strategies that mitigate potential issues before they arise, rather than just relying on reactive measures. This article explores the importance of proactive approaches to workplace wellness for first responder departments and offers practical techniques to build sustainable wellness into the organizational structure.
Impacts of Reactive Approaches
Traditional reactive approaches to workplace wellness often involve addressing issues or traumas only after they have already occurred. Reactive measures can include counseling services after a struggling employee reaches out for help or a critical incident debriefing after a traumatic call for service. Reactive responses are important, certainly, but should be complemented by proactive strategies.
When a first responder faces a distressing call (such as a traffic collision that involves the death of a child, as one of many examples), reactive support measures after the call can assist in dealing with the immediate trauma. However, proactive support strategies implemented beforehand can significantly reduce the long-term impact of such traumatic incidents (Burnett et al., 2022). This combined approach enables first responders to proactively develop healthy coping skills which potentially lessens the emotional toll from their inevitable traumatic calls, as well as also reactively seek support when needed.
Both approaches, proactive and reactive, are necessary.
When employees feel that the organization’s approach to wellness is only reactive, it can foster a perception of isolation and that no one truly cares about their well-being. If a department relies on reactive wellness measures as a sole method, employees might perceive that the organization is merely fulfilling a checkbox requirement. This can result in decreased morale, motivation, and trust within the organization. Without proactive measures in place, employees may feel neglected and unsupported, leading to increased stress levels and potentially compromising their mental health. Combining occupational traumas with organizational stressors has been shown to increase absenteeism, turnover rates, and an overall decline in mental health in first responders (Finney et al., 2013).
To foster a culture of care and support, it is crucial for organizations to embrace both proactive and reactive mental health initiatives that demonstrate a genuine concern for the long-term well-being of their employees.
Understanding Proactive Approaches
Proactive workplace wellness for first responders involves taking preemptive measures to promote and maintain the well-being of individuals. Organizations should aim to prevent stress-related burnout, mental health issues, and physical ailments, rather than simply treating the symptoms and injuries as they occur. Proactive wellness strategies focus on prevention, education, and support, which ultimately fosters a healthy work environment that promotes individual well-being.
Research confirms that proactive mental health support has been proven to significantly enhance the well-being of employees while also contributing to organizational success. This all creates a supportive environment that fosters employee engagement, productivity, health, and job satisfaction. This also helps with retention efforts by the organization. Additionally, organizations that invest in proactive mental health initiatives often have lower healthcare costs and healthier employees. By prioritizing mental health support, organizations cultivate a positive work culture that benefits both employees and the organization as a whole (Goetzel et al., 2002; Dewa et al., 2010).
Cultivating a Proactive Wellness Culture
To build sustainable wellness techniques into the organizational structure, first responder agencies should consider the following strategies:
- Peer support programs: Implement peer support programs where experienced first responders can assist and mentor their colleagues. Peer support can provide a safe and understanding space for discussing work-related challenges and promoting emotional support. Peer support programs have been proven to foster a proactive wellness culture, as they provide opportunities for individuals to connect with and support one another, enhancing their mental well-being and resilience (Shorey & Chua, 2022)
- Mental health education and training: Provide ongoing training on stress management, resilience, and mental health awareness. Educating first responders about the signs of burnout and equipping them with coping mechanisms can help prevent the escalation of stress-related issues (Violanti, 2022). First responders should have access to this education on the very first day of their careers. Additionally, this information should be shared with the families of first responders so they can identify when their loved one is struggling.
- Physical and mental wellness programs: Implement programs that include discounted gym memberships, meditation classes, nutrition workshops, and work-life balance templates to encourage individuals to prioritize their physical and mental well-being (McKeon et al., 2021). This can be achieved through first-responder-specific wellness resources and apps (such as First Response Mental Health) and/or created in-house with local partnerships.
Measuring and Evaluating Impact
To ensure the effectiveness of proactive wellness strategies, it is essential to measure and evaluate their impact. Implement regular workplace surveys, focus groups, and feedback mechanisms to gauge the well-being of first responders and identify areas that require improvement. Use these insights to refine and adapt wellness initiatives over time.
Here are some ideas to consider:
- Employee wellness survey: Conduct a comprehensive survey to assess employee perceptions and experiences related to wellness initiatives. Include questions about individual overall well-being, stress levels, work-life balance, engagement in wellness activities, and on perception of the organization’s commitment to employee wellness. This survey can be conducted annually or semi-annually to track changes over time.
- Feedback mechanisms and focus groups: Establish feedback mechanisms, such as anonymous suggestion boxes or online platforms, where employees can provide feedback on the wellness initiatives. Encourage open and honest information regarding experiences, suggestions for improvement, and any barriers faced in engaging with the wellness programs. Additionally, conduct focus group interviews (such as with a squad during briefing) to gather more in-depth insights and opinions from employees about the impact of the wellness strategies on their well-being and work performance.
- Absenteeism and sick leave tracking: Monitor and analyze data on absenteeism and sick leave to gauge the impact of proactive wellness strategies. By comparing the data before and after implementing wellness initiatives, you can assess if there is a decrease in the number of sick days taken or instances of unplanned absences. This can provide an indication of the effectiveness of the wellness strategies in reducing health-related issues.
By combining these measurement approaches, organizations can gather quantitative and qualitative data to evaluate the impact of proactive wellness strategies on employee well-being, engagement, and overall organizational outcomes.
A combined approach for first responder wellness is vital, as it helps build resilience, reduces the impact of stress, and improves overall well-being. By incorporating sustainable wellness techniques into the organizational structure, first responder agencies can create a supportive environment that prioritizes the health and happiness of their employees. Ensuring the well-being of first responders’ mental health through the urgent implementation of both proactive and reactive support strategies is as time-sensitive as their heroic responses to emergencies.
Learn more how PeerConnect can support your departments proactive wellness strategy. Book a meeting today.
Burnett, H. J., Jaeger, J., Witzel, K. R., & Bailey, K. G. D. (2022). Revisiting proactive and reactive pathways to resilience among CISM-trained responders and general population participants: Mechanisms that contribute to building overall psychological body ARMORTM. Digital Commons @ Andrews University. https://digitalcommons.andrews.edu/pubs/4222/
Dewa, C., Chau, N., & Dermer, S. (2010). Examining the comparative incidence and costs of physical and mental health-related disabilities in an employed population. Journal of occupational and environmental medicine. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/20595909/
Finney, C., Stergiopoulos, E., Hensel, J., Bonato, S., & Dewa, C. S. (2013, January 29). Organizational stressors associated with job stress and burnout in correctional officers: A systematic review – BMC public health. BioMed Central. https://bmcpublichealth.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/1471-2458-13-82
Goetzel, R., Ozminkowsky, R., Sederer, L., & Mark, T. (2002). The business case for quality mental health services: Why … – JSTOR. JStor. https://www.jstor.org/stable/44995919?newaccount=true
McKeon, G., Steel, Z., Wells, R., Newby, J., Hadzi-Pavlovic, D., Vancampfort, D., & Rosenbaum, S. (2021). A mental health–informed physical activity intervention for first responders and their partners delivered using Facebook: Mixed methods pilot study. JMIR Formative Research. https://formative.jmir.org/2021/4/e23432
Shorey, S., & Chua, J. (2022). Models of Mental Health Problems: A quasi-systematic review of … Taylor & Francis Online. https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/09638237.2021.2022638
Violanti, J. (2020, October 7). On policing-A matter of psychological survival. JAMA Network Open. https://jamanetwork.com/journals/jamanetworkopen/article-abstract/2771394
About the Author
Stephanie Kiesow is a writer, author, speaker, and law enforcement veteran. Stephanie served the Central Coast of California during her 16 years in law enforcement; the last several as a police officer. She earned her bachelor’s degree in psychology, a master’s degree in Industrial and Organizational Psychology (IO Psych), and is working on obtaining her Ph.D. in IO Psych. Stephanie also holds many certifications from various organizations, including ones that involve psychological autopsies.
In 2022, Stephanie left her job as a police officer and now helps departments and corporations increase organizational safety and wellness through anecdotal and science-backed methods. Stephanie has been a contributing writer and a curriculum creator for a handful of organizations and has been invited to speak for several conferences, associations, and trainings.
When not writing, teaching, or presenting, Stephanie enjoys spending time with her husband and young sons and taking care of her beloved dogs, cats, and chickens.