First responders were always at the frontlines, heroically confronting risks to their own safety and well being. High stress and trauma were already part of their realities. But the COVID-19 pandemic has exponentially increased that risk, stress and trauma. Employers of first responders are thinking of ways to better support and appreciate first responders and how changes to the workplace might help.
Right now public outpourings showing appreciation of the tremendously important and brave work of first responders has become more commonplace, but it’s important not to let those expressions of thanks and gratitude waiver as our country cautiously begins to open back up again after being on lockdown.
Keep in mind that first responders will be grappling with the trauma of what they have been called on to cope with during this pandemic for a very long time. This impact on their mental health and feelings about their jobs will likely be profoundly felt and long lasting.
First Responders: Recognizing the Warning Signs
The state of Michigan put together an excellent guide for first responders to help them identify and combat stress and trauma. It has many good ideas that first responders can put into place and is an important overview for employers to read to become aware of what their employees are confronting and how they can support their employees. Consider how you could put measures in place to help facilitate some of the suggestions
An interesting approach is to help first responders create a Stress Resilience Plan. The publication defines resilience as the ability to adapt successfully in the face of trauma, adversity, tragedy or significant threat. By creating a stress resilience plan, first responders can help fight against burnout and compassion fatigue. Look over these questions and see if there are areas you can offer support as an employer.
What are my early warning signs of excessive stress? What do I do currently on a daily basis for self-care? What do I do on a weekly basis to improve self-care? What do I do when my stress level is unusually high?
- Plan for the Future
What can I add to my self-care routine? How will I make time for these new strategies? How often should I review what I am doing? What challenges do I expect to have with my plan for change? How will I know if my changes are helping?
- Get Support
Who can I turn to for support with my plan? How often should I check in with them? What professional support is available for me if I need it?
The publication from Michigan’s Department of Health & Human Services also lists practical tips to keep first responders healthy and a chart that outlines physical, cognitive, emotional and behavioral signs of stress.
The Centers for Disease Control also offers coping tips for first responders.
Mindfulness Works at Work
Mindfulness work and meditation have been mentioned a lot during the pandemic as helpful tools to cope with the unprecedented devastation and stress first responders have faced. But not everyone is familiar (or comfortable) with these practices. Many people think that it means they need to sit cross legged on the floor of an ashram chanting a mantra, when really just a few minutes each day can actually help rewire their brains. Research has shown that mindfulness work has helped vets cope with severe PTSD and professional athletes are embracing it as a way to help focus and “get their heads in the game.”
It would be helpful to offer employees access to discounted or free education to learn how to incorporate mindfulness practice into their lives:
- Offer access to online courses like: those offered by Mindful, Coursera and Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction.
- Give App Store gift cards so your employees can tap into apps like: Headspace, Calm, Insight Timer, Healthy Minds Program, etc. (some of these offer a free intro)
- Create a library of books on this topic: Full Catastrophe Living, 10% Happier, The Miracle of Mindfulness.
- Provide space in a breakroom for quiet reflection mediation.
- Hire a meditation leader to run a zoom class that staff can drop in. Publish the schedule and save sessions to YouTube to be watched anytime.
Thrive Global has lots of useful and comforting information for first responders. There are positive stories as well as videos and articles offering practical information. We’re sure that you will be able to tap into resources that you can use, including a guided meditation designed for those on the front lines.
Acknowledge First Responder Trauma
There has been a lot of discussion about the traumatic effects of the pandemic on everyone, children whose daily routines have been upended, workers finding themselves suddenly out of work, essential employees facing increased challenges and risk. So many people feel isolated, fearful, uncertain and anxious. Even as there are tentative steps back to “normalcy,” nobody is sure what that future will look and feel like.
Educators, social workers and child development professionals are suggesting that schools embrace the tenets of trauma informed practice when students finally return to school. Employers can apply some of those concepts to the workplace. But first, it’s helpful to understand the definition. Since we’re based in Wisconsin, we’ll share how our state’s Department of Health Services’ Resilient Wisconsin program defines it:
“Trauma-informed practices (sometimes referred to as trauma-informed care) are a model for understanding and compassionately serving people who live with, or are affected by, the consequences of toxic stress or trauma. First, by acknowledging the role that trauma has played in their health, behaviors, and relationships. Secondly, by providing services and support in ways that do not blame or re-traumatize a person in need.”
The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) has helped establish the standard of care for practitioners with a set of essential principles and requirements for implementing trauma-informed practices in a wide variety of settings.
SAMHSA’s six principles that guide a trauma-informed approach are:
- Trustworthiness & transparency
- Peer support
- Collaboration & mutuality
- Empowerment & choice
- Cultural, historical & gender issues
Keep Showing Gratitude
In a moving op-ed piece for CNN which predicts a wave of mental health challenges for first responders, writer Samantha L. Smith addresses what is needed to help support them and cautions us all to avoid abandoning our gestures of gratitude.
“We must support our heroes by having systems in place, securing them affordable and ready access to mental health counseling, drug and alcohol treatment, and the proper time they will need to heal. If we want responders to continue their essential jobs, and do them well, we must afford them our praise in tangible, actionable ways.”
Smith also points out our tendency to rush back to “normal”:
“We celebrate our heroes but quickly expect them to resume their normal lives after working through a national crisis.”
This statement from Smith should serve as a powerful reminder that although things may never be the same, it’s important to follow words of thanks with actions.
“We can truly thank our heroes only if we don’t forget them in their coming hours of need.”
Tangible Support in Action
Even though prior research indicates that first responders are often reluctant to seek help, that help should be available and efforts should be made to remove the stigmas surrounding mental health counseling and well as drug and alcohol treatment. It’s employers’ responsibility to increase awareness of support that is available to first responders.
In a edition of Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) Disaster Technical Assistance Center’s (DTAC) The Dialogue entitled The Effects of Trauma on First Responders (published in 2018 prior to the pandemic but still valuable), you can find information about resources, tools, case studies and statistics that can help you help your employees.
Consider offering an Employment Assistance Program (EAP) — these are voluntary, work-based program that offers free and confidential assessments, short-term counseling, referrals, and follow-up services to employees who have personal and/or work-related problems. EAPs address a broad and complex body of issues affecting mental and emotional well-being, such as alcohol and other substance abuse, stress, grief, family problems, and psychological disorders. EAP counselors also work in a consultative role with managers and supervisors to address employee and organizational challenges and needs. Many EAPs are active in helping organizations prevent and cope with workplace violence, trauma, and other emergency response situations.
gThankYou Makes it Easy to Say Thank You
First responders most need the resources to do their job safely and the respect and support to handle the stress, trauma and personal toll. There are acts of kindness that can supplement the important recommendations above. A handwritten note of thanks, public recognition of effort, unexpected time off or a compassionate check-in conversation can all help communicate that employees are valued and appreciated during these unprecedented times.
At gThankYou, we believe in the practical gift-giving of food. During these challenging times the thoughtful gift of groceries says “thank you” in a way that’s uniquely valuable right now. Everyone appreciates a gift they can truly use and that benefits their family.
As you help your staff navigate these challenging times, make the extra effort to be purposeful about your gratitude.
Learn More About gThankYou!