November 15th, 2019
Additional Experience: Firefighter
In this Additional Experience we speak to firefighter Mark (not his real name). Mark explains how despite having a highly stressful job, he and his colleagues are able to keep on top of their mental health.
How long have you been in your profession?
5 years part time (on-call) and 3 years full-time (wholetime) alongside this.
Can you tell us a little bit about what your job entails?
As a firefighter, a large part of my role entails responding to a range of emergency incidents, of which some can be extremely traumatic. This includes fires, road traffic collisions, rescues from water/height/below ground, rescues of those who are trapped/locked in, chemical incidents, animal rescues, assisting with other emergency services and many more. There is also a certain amount of training to complete, alongside visits to schools, homes and risk sites to offer information, guidance and expertise. The on-call aspect is limited to responding to a pager within 5 minutes for emergencies exactly the same as above, with a more limited amount of exposure to the other non-incident related activities.
What aspects of your job, if any, do you find challenging for your mental health? Why is that?
The incidents in which I come across people in severe distress, or even worse, when there are fatalities, can certainly be tough. Turning up to these emergencies and seeing extremely traumatic scenes leaves vivid images in your head forever, and not keeping on top of those is detrimental to mental health.
What aspects of your job, if any, do you find beneficial for your mental health? Why is that?
Obviously the plus side of the above is when we turn up to any scene in a person’s time of need and are able to help them, prevent things from getting worse and/or make the situation better. The praise we receive from members of public after assisting them, and from those who we have been fortunate enough not to encounter the incident, also gives your mental health a boost. There are definitely advantages to working with like-minded people in a close knit group as well. If there are any issues, we overcome them as a team and help one another out whenever we can - it creates good bonds amongst the team.
How is your work life balance? Is it easy to separate the two worlds or do you find they overlap quite a bit?
Covering two jobs has a significant impact on my work life balance which involves covering the majority of weekends and nights. This doesn’t give me the usual amount of time for my social life that others have, so they overlap quite significantly. I try to plan things to do in my spare time as much as possible to make the most of it - it’s important to have that release from work and socialise with other people that aren’t part of the fire service.
Is there anything that you or your organisation does to improve and/or maintain your mental health at work?
Following any traumatic incident we have a debrief in which we go over the incident and those who have attended get to discuss their reactions and feelings. During this time mental health programmes such as TRiM practitioners and other CBT techniques are offered to all people involved. These are not forced on individuals, they’re just available should you need them.
Do you feel that it’s easy to discuss your mental health with colleagues and managers?
I find the most beneficial thing for my mental health is to discuss the traumatic scenes with my colleagues and managers who attended as we have all witnessed similar things and usually it helps to eradicate the more sinister memories following incidents. Even those who haven’t attended are easy to talk to as at some point we have all come across something that could easily affect us and are in a similar boat.
Do you feel like your experience is common in your line of work?
In my line of work it is common to come across distressing scenes that could affect your mental health, but it is part of the job that you sign up for so why they are still distressing for everyone, there is probably more of an expectation to come across these unfortunate events and we are maybe more immune to them.
Are there any stories in particular that you’d like to share?
The story that will stick with me throughout my career was an emergency callout in which a cyclist hit a pothole. They were thrown off balance and went straight under a moving car. On arrival at the scene we quickly released the person from under the vehicle before the air ambulance team took over as we assisted them with life-saving tasks. With the casualty not in a good way the air ambulance doctor decided to perform open surgery on the road as this was the only meaningful chance of survival.
I still hold a very vivid memory of this. It was not just the scene itself, but the story behind it - this could so easily happen to anyone. It’s one that will stick with me and if I were to see scenes like this over and over again, there would undoubtedly be a significant impact on my mental health.
Psychological insight from Dr Nicky Hartigan
Most people would expect being a firefighter to be one of the most stressful and distressing jobs you could have; we tend to assume that a job in which you are regularly faced with traumatic and catastrophic events would almost certainly have a negative impact upon mental health. However, Mark’s account suggests that for him, the psychological benefits of the role outweigh the challenges. There are some key reasons for this perhaps surprising situation.
Firstly, the nature of the job means that witnessing trauma is predicted and that firefighters are psychologically prepared for this. This is not to say that witnessing these events is not upsetting at all for firefighters, however, research demonstrates that knowing in advance that a traumatic event is likely can reduce the risk of experiencing a significant psychological reaction, such as PTSD.
Secondly, Mark highlights that the Fire Service he works for provides excellent psychological support including debriefing, evidence based therapy such as CBT and a culture of openness and support amongst colleagues. This organisational ethos is vitally important for people whose job exposes them to trauma and it is heartening to hear that the Fire Service is looking out for the mental wellbeing of their employees, whom we all depend upon to keep us safe.
Additionally, Mark is also doing a great job of protecting his own mental wellbeing, by being proactive in making time to see friends and socialise outside of work, despite the heavy demands on his time and unsocial hours he has to work. Also, Mark has chosen a career he is well matched to - despite the harsh reality of the role of a firefighter, in this he has found a community of like-minded people with whom he has developed close bonds and who share his values and purpose. Humans are inherently social beings and therefore having a sense of belongingness such as this provides mental health benefits and protects against psychological distress.
Of course many people who are exposed to traumatic events in their job do experience some degree of psychological distress or traumatic reaction. This is very understandable and should not be viewed as a personal weakness or a sign of ‘not coping’. Anyone who is distressed by traumatic events they have witnessed or been involved in should speak to a mental health professional, such as a psychologist; traumatic reactions are eminently treatable and can be overcome using evidence-based psychological therapies.