Firefighters witness more trauma than the average person, and without work-life balance, such experiences can adversely affect life both on and off the job, including relationships. (Photo by Pixabay.)
You are More Than Your Job
Firefighters are humans too. You have a life outside of your shift. You may have a family to spend time with, the Sunday ballgame to catch, or a hobby to pursue. You may have that “staycation” with Netflix that you have been wanting for such a long time. The point is, even though you are in a career that is extremely vital to the nation, you need balance just like everyone else. More importantly, you need work-life balance.
So, what exactly is work-life balance? The definitions are as varied as those who try to define the phrase, but there is consensus that it is when work and the rest of life come together in a way that results in the worker feeling fulfilled. With specific reference to firefighters, it is when you can give the shift all it deserves while still being able to serve yourself in your own time so that your needs are taken care of. Ultimately, work-life balance is found when the humanity of the firefighter is not diminished by serving humanity.
The Importance of Work-Life Balance
Gail Kinman, professor of occupational health psychology at the University of Bedfordshire and co-chair of the British Psychological Society (BPS) Working Group for Work-life Balance, UK, is one of the foremost experts on work-life balance. Her research focuses on helping professionals such as firefighters. According to Kinman, there are two ways in which work can prevent the achievement of balance: time-based conflict and strain-based conflict.
“Time-based work-life conflict is where the time spent at work takes time away from other activities such as hobbies, leisure, fitness, and spending time with family and friends,” says Kinman. “Strain-based conflict is where somebody may be away from work, but rather than spending the time relaxing and recovering from work demands, they are worrying about work issues.”
Both types of work-life conflict prevent a person from being able to focus on other areas of life. “They are unable to relax and be mentally as well as physically present,” and this lack of balance can lead to “fatigue, poor sleep, and can confine the firefighter to a cycle of not being able to recover from the demands of work,” explains Kinman.
It is important to have a properly rested and energetic body and mind, ready to take on the challenges of being in the fire service. To achieve this, you need to be able to thoroughly wind down after work and enjoy what the rest of your life has to offer. Work-life balance is important, as it will protect against time and strain conflict while allowing for a more fulfilling lifestyle.
According to Kinman’s research, job role demands and ineffective organizational change lead to work-life conflict and, at the same time, reduced work-life enrichment (the extent to which positive work and home experiences interact to improve quality of life and performance). “A poor work-life balance can be particularly serious for people working in stressful roles in safety critical jobs,” she says. “Adequate rest is essential and people need to switch off from work to restore their mental and physical energy for the next shift.”
Job Demand and Resources
In her research, Kinman found that firefighters who spent more of their personal time worrying about work tended to have a poorer work-life balance, and this also exacerbated the negative impact of job demands. Based on a study by Professor Evangelia Demerouti and colleagues, every job brings with it certain risk factors.1 These factors may be split into two categories: job demands and job resources. Job demands are the organizational, psychological, physical, and social elements of the job, such as work pressure, which need skill and effort to execute. Job resources are the functionalities like role autonomy that help people deal with the demands. Job demands include workload, relationship difficulties with colleagues, and change management issues, while resources include support from colleagues and managers, role clarity, and job control. As such, job resources can often act as cushions that soften the impact of job demands.
In 2015, a leading career portal, CareerCast, named firefighting as the most stressful job.2 Firefighters witness more trauma than the average person, and without work-life balance, such experiences can adversely affect life both on and off the job, including relationships. “Many firefighters work shifts, and this can impair the quality of personal relationships,” says Kinman. “It is also common for work-life conflict to manifest itself as conflict with family and friends or a need to withdraw from them - emotional distancing and withdrawal may be required to process events during the shift.”
If work-life balance is not present then needs, such as being able to wind down and process the events of a shift, can become problematic. Work-life balance allows for time to unwind and relate to others in a healthy way. In a job as intense as firefighting, it is equally critical to achieve detachment for a healthy approach to balancing work and personal space.
How to Achieve Work-Life Balance
Professor Kinman highlights that if there is adequate support from colleagues and senior members in the fire service, the strain of work may be more easily dealt with. Indeed, if the workplace is protected from unnecessary emotional distress, then that is one step toward work-life balance, with firefighters not needing to carry that emotional distress home.
“It is vital for firefighters to switch off mentally from work when off duty, but they are likely to need a transition period that helps them move from work mode into their personal life,” advises Kinman, explaining that many firefighters leave their shift with high adrenaline levels, and this can hinder sleep. Therefore, there is a need for relaxation. She recommends firefighters find activities that allow them to relax and that they take part in these activities regularly. “These may be solo activities such as going for a walk or to the gym, cooking a meal, or listening to a radio program; it depends on what helps you switch off. Think about the activities that replenish you and help you recover. They can vary considerably between individuals,” she says.
Some firefighters may have little opportunity to spend quality time with their family and friends, limiting their opportunities to gain social support. Therefore, it may be fitting for the families and friends of firefighters to take part in this process by making provision for relaxation to happen. For example, firefighters can often benefit from connecting with family and friends for 15-minute yoga, meditation, or deep-breathing breaks, either during their workday or after shift hours. This will enhance relationships while also relieving any work-related stress.
The fire service may also wish to invest in programs where members can become better equipped to unwind, as the job is unlikely to become less stressful. “Provide staff with training on healthy ways to unwind - mindfulness can be particularly useful,” says Kinman. She also recommends that firefighters be discouraged from having overinvolvement in the job and that a review is undertaken into “shift systems and on-call practices to make sure they are healthy” as well as providing “opportunities for healthy eating and exercise.”
Enhanced levels of job control and a more democratic system of organizational change management are crucial, with staff involvement and better communication. Furthermore, work-life balance can be easier to achieve with the control and regulation of emotions. This goes a long way in protecting firefighters from the negative effects associated with their job, such as intensive shifts and trauma. “There is evidence that it is essential for firefighters to have sufficient time and opportunity to process negative experiences to avoid serious problems such as post-traumatic stress disorder,” says Kinman.
Overall, Kinman believes there could be more opportunities for facilitating work-life balance for the entire fire service. She says, “Bear in mind that work-life balance is not just for people with children; everyone needs enough time ‘off the job.’ Provide opportunities for flexible working and make sure that its uptake is not stigmatized.” It is imperative for management to invest in the emotional, physical, and environmental well-being of firefighters through innovative and organizational change aimed at promoting work-life balance for those who have chosen the high-pressure life of a fire and rescue service worker.
1. Demerouti E, Bakker AB, Nachreiner F, Schaufeli WB, “The job demands-resources model of burnout,” J. Appl. Psychol. 86:499-512, 2001.
2. CareerCast, “The most stressful jobs of 2015,” 2015, Available from: http://www.careercast.com/jobs-rated/most-stressful-jobs-2015