How many hours of the day do you spend working? Given you could spend anything between half and three-quarters of your waking hours in the workplace, it’s easy to see why comfort is vital. This is true for the average working American and is most definitely applicable to those working in fire and rescue. At any given time, the average full-time firefighter works 10, 24 hour shifts each month which averages out to about 60 hours per week. Needless to say, it is just as important to be comfortable in your workplace than it is to be comfortable in your own home. The ability to recover and live a healthy and happy lifestyle within such a high-stress job is possible with the right environment and support.
Although there are many variables in creating a comfortable work environment, when it is achieved, comfort heightens enjoyment and as a result encourages happiness. When people are happy and content, they work harder and have more energy to spare. A recent study by economists at the University of Warwick found that happiness led to a 12 percent spike in productivity, while unhappy workers proved 10 percent less productive. As the research team put it, “We find that human happiness has large and positive causal effects on productivity. Positive emotions appear to invigorate human beings.” Comfort in the workplace also leads to healthier lifestyle decisions.
I’ve spent the last few installations of “Finding Comfort: Working the Second Most Stressful Job in the Nation” discussing excessive stress, its causes and the prevention techniques to keep it from manifesting into life-threatening illness. Any rescue career is an all-consuming, demanding and incredibly intense lifestyle. Its commitments require each team member to carry a heavy load — that’s without considering most teams are understaffed. In order for any team to work at their greatest potential it is vital that each person be physically and mentally in good health. If not maintained properly, stress can easily transition from a necessary adrenalin pumping reaction to an unhealthy long-term illness. Excessive stress can manifest as symptoms of digestive problems, loss of appetite, high blood pressure, migraines, depression, extreme anxiety and even heart failure.
It is crucial for firefighters to recognize the symptoms of chronic stress, how to prevent good stress from turning deadly and how to mentally maintain a happy and healthy lifestyle. These factors help firefighters work more effectively and can help prevent stress from becoming a debilitating and life-threatening disease.
Along with prevention and proper de-stressing techniques, practicing the right recovery techniques from regular or chronic stress is just as important. Recovering from any type of trauma, whether it be a call that wakes you in the middle of the night, or responding to a fatal accident at the beginning of your shift, what you do after that call is just as important as what you do to prepare for it. Proper recovery from chronic stress is the everyday life of a firefighter. Constantly recovering and needing to carve out time to de-stress and debrief is vital to maintaining a healthy life under such demanding circumstances. Having the right space to do so within the workplace is vital and we easily forget how important it is to take care of our own bodies.
It is your responsibility to help encourage and create a comfortable space that feels and promotes healthy practices within your firehouse. Whether it be by creating a comfortable lounge area to enhance social interaction and encourage communication among team members, even providing a separate space for team members to have a few moments to relax and reflect. Importantly so, encouragement of this behavior is also essential for the wellness of a team.
There are plenty of actions that can be taken in a firehouse to either encourage relaxation or quite the opposite. Environmental conditions can be adjusted to maximize alertness by controlling lighting and temperature. Bright lighting enhances alertness. Keeping the temperature at a setting slightly below normal but still comfortable also helps to counteract drowsiness. Organizing work tasks to have the most tedious activities early in a shift, allowing for social interchange and providing patterns of non-monotonous sounds also will contribute to an attention-stimulating environment. All of these conditions contribute to the comfort of each individual within the firehouse. Each member of the team spends many hours in a high-stress environment that requires maximum effort and great effort to recover. Proper recovery from such strenuous calls is necessary and can only be achieved in the right environment.
Creating a comfortable environment for those who work to save lives seems like a no-brainer, but often times an under-valued fire station can fall short of these accommodations. Without even realizing the alternatives, firefighters can be conditioned to deal with an uncomfortable and stressful workplace. Through extensive research, J. Navarre, a previous Human Resources Officer of the Toledo Fire Department, has concluded that the necessary, healthy and enjoyable environmental factors in a high functioning and successful firehouse include:
- Need for private space —the need to be away from the public and other firefighters
- Need for privacy — the need to have an area that is personal.
- Need for a balance between the institutional quality of the firehouse verses the family atmosphere and the firefighters’ relationships as members of the firehouse
- Need to control the noise and media pollution- the need for quiet relaxation, study, and sleep.
- Need for relaxing– need for furnishings and surroundings that are physically, mentally, and psychologically stress reducing, or at least not stress promoting.
Creating a peaceful space at work can be achieved with comfortable furniture and some easy reading materials. Avoid using technology for a few moments, practice stabilized deep breathing and let your mind rest. Learning to practice this for just a small amount of each day is challenging at first, especially when your body is used to being in a constant state of stress arousal. But this daily practice can enhance memory, reduce blood pressure, promote better blood flow, strengthen abdominal and intestinal muscles and most importantly reduce stress.
In order for a firehouse to fulfill their duties properly and also meet such high-level demands without fault, each member should take the time to routinely be self-aware, relax and decompress from the day. If your firehouse is not properly equipped for relaxation and comfortable living this could be a main factor in poor performance and the overall health of the entire team. Consider the furniture in your firehouse to be just as important as the equipment you take out on each call to save lives and fight fires. Not only is it essential to furnish a firehouse properly to encourage healthy living, each firehouse being different, needs furnishings unique to their own facility. Spend the time as a team figuring out what type of furniture and layout is best and most efficient for your existing space.
A team that is well rested, recovered and prepared can take on any call, at any time at full potential. Although everyone has different ways of coping- it is vital to have the right space to properly recover. Having an environment that encourages social interaction, de-stressing and relaxation will improve the overall health of the team and as a result will lead to a happier and healthier firehouse.