Emergency Services Personnel Subject to High Rates of Stress

A recent survey suggests that stress, low mood, and poor mental health affect 87 percent of emergency services personnel and volunteers at some point.

The online survey, carried out by UK mental health charity Mind in late 2014, was completed by 3,627 staff. It suggested that 55 percent of police, fire, and ambulance service personnel had experienced mental health problems at some point.

The rate is starkly higher than that of a previous survey of employees overall by the UK’s Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, which found a lower rate, 26 percent, had experienced a mental health problem.

Working in emergency services is clearly associated with a higher risk of developing poor mental health, warns Paul Farmer, chief executive of Mind. However, only 43 percent of those surveyed said have taken time off work due to poor mental health, a lower rate than among the general workforce (57 percent).

Mr. Farmer says, “Not only are many of our blue light personnel struggling with their mental health, but they’re less likely to seek support or have time off sick than the general workforce. It could be that personnel are fearful of talking about mental health at work or don’t believe their employers view mental health problems as valid reasons for sickness absence.”

Firefighter Eleanor Hathaway, based in Oxfordshire, UK, experienced depression and was fearful of speaking out. Fortunately her employer was really supportive when she did so.

“Part of me was concerned that my colleagues would think, ‘If she can’t cope with something mentally, she shouldn’t be here,'” said Ms. Hathaway. “Part of me was concerned about how I’d be dealt with. And part of me was confused. How do you explain why you’re so upset, when you don’t know yourself?”

Mind has created a “Blue Light Program” to focus on tackling stigma and discrimination, workplace well-being, resilience-building, and providing information and support.

“The program we’ll be delivering over the next year aims to ensure that the estimated quarter of a million people working and volunteering within police, ambulance, fire and search, and rescue divisions are able to talk openly about their mental health and access the support they need to stay well, recover, and continue doing the vital and challenging roles they do serving the community,” said Mr. Farmer.

He added that Mind has received a very positive response to the project so far. “There is a clear consensus that this is an issue that needs tackling and it’s clear that the will is there to address it.”

General Secretary of the Fire Brigades Union, Matt Wrack, welcomes the survey, saying: “Firefighters and other emergency service workers will welcome the publication of this report which draws attention to serious safety, health and welfare issues facing those on the frontline of our emergency services.

“Firefighters and other emergency service staff deal with very challenging situations every single day. These may involve members of the public who are killed, injured, or in danger in some way. This work therefore creates its own unique stresses and challenges.

“In addition, emergency service staff work 24 hours a day meaning that they may face such challenges at any time. It is well known that shift work creates its own challenges for the health and well-being of workers.”

Commenting on the survey, Alan Lofthouse of the workers’ union Unison said: “These findings mirror our own and show how little has been done to help emergency workers cope with the pressure of the job. Ambulance workers are so committed to their patients that despite the huge amount of pressure and impact on their mental and physical health they still frequently come in for their shifts.

“Of course working in emergency services is physically demanding and challenging but the right type of support should be in place. This is unfair on patients and unfair on workers. As a result, many are actively looking to leave the profession.”

Writing in the Emergency Medicine Journal, Dr. Katherine Roberts of Lansdowne Hospital, Cardiff, UK, summarizes the issues facing this group of workers: “Emergency personnel are vulnerable to psychological distress in both the short-term and long term. While emergency work can be rewarding, personnel are also required to deal with some potentially traumatising situations.

“Some of those rated as being most stressful include: accidents involving children, cot death, mass incidents, major fires, road traffic accidents, burns patients, dead on arrival, violent incidents, and murder scenes.

One review concluded that: “Compared to other health professionals and fire-fighters, emergency medical technicians’ stress and burnout levels are among the highest.”


Mind for better mental health Mind

Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD). December 2011. Focus on mental health in the Workplace. CIPD

Smith, A. and Roberts, K. Interventions for post-traumatic stress disorder and psychological distress in emergency ambulance personnel: a review of the literature. Emergency Medicine Journal, January 2003 doi:10.1136/emj.20.1.75