Taking the Weight Off Stress Management for First RespondersFirst responders are on the front line of defense when it comes to keeping people safe. People depend on them to be there when disaster strikes, think quickly on their feet and make “game time” decisions. These expectations place a heavy weight on the shoulders of first responders, as each day, they’re faced with new high-stress situations. It’s important that first responders are able to lean on each other and their support systems for help, and that they’re equipped with stress management techniques that work best for them.

Recognizing Stress Reactions

The first step in preventing burnout and the possible development of mental health issues is recognizing the different symptoms of stress. The Office of Justice Programs (OJP) has compiled an extensive list of stress reactions broken down into three categories: physical, behavioral and psychological. Some symptoms to look out for are:

  • Increase or decrease in activity levels
  • Substance use or abuse
  • Weight loss or gain
  • Inconsistent sleep patterns
  • Anxiety or fear
  • Depression

The ability of first responders to identify these warning signs in themselves or their peers is paramount to confronting and managing stress in the workplace.

Planning and Prevention

To remain proactive in preventing undue mental health crises and stress, supervisors should consistently and clearly state their expectations for each team member, know the training capacity of each team member and assign them to jobs accordingly. Having an exact understanding of their role will prevent responders from making mistakes and mitigate stress and mental health crises on the job. Other Office of Justice Programs suggestions to consider for preventing stressful experiences and work environments include:

  • Thoughtfully planning a communications strategy
  • Establishing clear lines of authority
  • Providing consistent stress management training
  • Having contact information for family members for emergency and support purposes

The Heat of the Moment

Experiencing stress is inevitable when responding to patient needs at the scene of a medical crisis, but it can certainly be reduced through preparation and proper coping skills and tools to mitigate its effect on first responders’ health both on and off the job. It’s important for responders to lean on each other in these situations, as they can relate to the thoughts and feelings of one another through shared experiences. This can be done through the “buddy system” — a method for ensuring that no person is left without support. Buddy systems can be coordinated by pairing veteran responders with newcomers, or through random selection, to boost team morale and encourage employees to confide in one another about stressors and challenges.

Managers should consider rotating people who are often in higher-stress situations to lower-stress positions to evenly distribute the workload and avoid causing these responders to bear the burden of chronic exposure to situations that may trigger mental health crises.

Supervisors should also identify places on the job for responders to take breaks, whether to eat, drink or just recharge. Without taking breaks, first responders won’t perform their jobs as effectively, and may be less alert or attentive in interactions with team members and patients.

Another element that can increase the stress of crisis situations is a lack of proper equipment. For example, noise and extreme temperatures can be distracting amid the chaos on scene. Equipping workers with proper gear, such as earplugs, headsets and protective clothing will ensure there are less distractions to overcome while navigating emergencies.

Recovering From a Crisis

After an emergency, many responders may suffer from lack of sleep or emotional distress due to the traumatic event. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration suggests several tips for emergency personnel to implement in their lives, including:

  • Eating nutritious meals
  • Exercising and stretching regularly
  • Maintaining contact with family and friends
  • Avoiding over-identifying with survivors’ grief
  • Practicing deep breathing exercises
  • Establishing a consistent sleeping routine
  • Holding consistent group meetings with other responders
  • Practicing journaling
  • Limiting the number of hours worked (when possible)

Self-Care is Not Selfish

As some of the most selfless people in our society, emergency responders may not be used to prioritizing their own mental and physical well-being. By seeking support from supervisors, coworkers, family and friends, and implementing stress management techniques on and off the job, responders can stay on top of their own mental health and needs, to show up for patients and their team as their best, healthiest selves.


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