Leading First Responder Well-being: Love as the Catalyst
Emotional Well-being and First Responder Culture:
Fortunately, a slow cultural shift towards first responder well-being is emerging. Although much work remains in altering organizational cultural impediments towards realizing greater levels of success in the arena, I am encouraged by the steady positive developments in awareness, advocacy, education and mostly, the burgeoning cadre of leaders wielding love as a catalyst towards leading their subordinates, peers, and superiors towards recognition and action. Especially in police and fire/paramedic cultures, where steely grit in the face of trauma and tragedy are expected and required, displaying vulnerability by acknowledging or expressing love towards colleagues can be problematic.
Yearning for Resolution:
Throughout my nearly 19 years in law enforcement, I have witnessed ubiquitous dedication, selflessness, courage, perseverance and sacrifice, as my fellow first responders have quietly executed their duties. Although the personal physical risk is self-evident, what is often overlooked are the monumental emotional and physical health burdens incurred due to such dedication. As significant research, as well as personal and professional experience demonstrate, the negative health effects of these burdens include a plethora of challenges from depression to heart disease (Gilmartin, 2002; Grossman, 2004; Conn & Butterfield, 2013). As I witness the deterioration of dedicated first responders, who are caught in a perpetual spiral accelerated by the hypervigilance cycle (Gilmartin, 2002; Grossman, 2004), I yearn to share the hope I have found, as I have deliberately deployed consistent strategies to disrupt this destructive sequence, ultimately leading to fulfillment, resilience and joy.
Leading Emotional Resilience and First Responder Well-being:
Still, leading emotional resilience and overall wellbeing can be an arduous and sometimes empathy depleting process (Browne, 2018). I have struggled with bridging the gap between the available knowledge related to addressing emotional and physical wellbeing, and my own inadequacies in leading my colleagues along a path I know will transform their lives. While the successful pathway towards leading transformative healing in our professions is multifaceted, I am convinced that success in this endeavor hinges on our ability to connect with each other on a personal and emotional level. Additionally, I believe the responsibility to care for our own is universal, regardless of rank relative to our relationship with our colleagues. When our peers, subordinates and superiors sense our genuine concern for their welfare, barriers previously impenetrable can be breached. While I confess my own limitations in caring for the emotional needs of all within my sphere of concern and influence (Covey, 1989), I have found that genuine love, coupled with the following strategies, have been beneficial in leading others towards emotional resilience:
- Take responsibility for your own emotional wellbeing. I have learned that I can only be effective in shouldering the burdens of others, if I ensure I am consistently addressing my own biological, physiological and psychological needs. If you need professional help getting back on track, pursue this road with courage. All of us need a mentor in tough times and there is no shame in admitting it.
- Express authentic appreciation and gratitude for the worthwhile contributions of colleagues to the organization, the public and to you personally.
- Embrace multidirectional leadership responsibilities. Regardless of another’s formal relationship to you, model and lead positive and emotionally supportive attitudes and behaviors. This includes both formal and informal leadership with peers, subordinates, and supervisors (Browne, 2017).
- Share your knowledge related to emotional resilience with everyone. A component of ensuring well-being is education, first seeking out emotional resilience knowledge and subsequently disseminating it to others. This approach will not only lift others, but solidify your knowledge and ability to incorporate these principles into your own self-care regimen (Achor, 2010).
- Initiate difficult conversations with someone who is struggling emotionally. This demonstrates true servant leadership and requires courage to implement, but will pay huge dividends in breaching communication barriers inhibiting progress in facing and addressing emotional and physical well-being. Once their struggles are revealed, lovingly and patiently lead them towards hope and healing.
Caring for Our Own:
As first responders, we sacrifice personal safety, routinely subjecting ourselves to significant emotional injury for the benefit of strangers. We have long operated under the assumption that since we are the helpers, we must suck it up and drive on, ignoring our own humanity, and that of our colleagues. This legacy cultural tenant has led to tragic consequences for first responders and their families for too long. We must alter this component of our culture and recognize that it is our stewardship to care for our own. I implore you to join us in leading first responder emotional resilience and overall well-being.
Achor, S. (2010). The Happiness Advantage: The Seven Principles of Positive Psychology That Fuel Success and Performance at Work. New York, NY: Broadway Books.
Browne, J. E. (2017). Positive Multidirectional Leadership: Ascending, Descending and Horizontal Emotional Support. Retrieved from http://www.healthebadge.com/hello-world/
Browne, J. E. (2018). Direct and Vicarious Trauma in Critical Occupations: Depleted Empathy and the Hope of Reconciliation. Retrieved from http://www.healthebadge.com/direct-and-vicarious-trauma-in-critical-occupations-empathy-and-the-hope-of-reconciling-interpersonal-relationships/
Conn, S. M., & Butterfield, L. D. (2013). Coping with Secondary Traumatic Stress by General Duty Police Officers: Practical Implications. Canadian Journal of Counselling and Psychotherapy, 47, 272-298.
Covey, S. R. (1989). The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. New York, NY: Free Press.
Gilmartin, K. M. (2002). Emotional Survival for Law Enforcement: A Guide for Officers and Their Families. Tucson, AZ: E-S Press.
Grossman, D. (2004). On Combat: The Psychology and Physiology of Deadly Conflict in War and in Peace. Belleville, IL: PPTC Research.