February 21, 2020
If a member of your crew is returning to the job after time off to get help, you and others may have mixed feelings and questions. What should I say or not say? Is this person ready to be back at work? How can I help? Supporting a brother or sister in recovery from tough times is what the firehouse family is all about.
Here are some simple steps you can take to be supportive:
1. Above all, follow their lead. Whether in recovery from addiction, a major loss, mental or physical illness, no two individuals respond the same. Depending on an individual’s stage of recovery and comfort level, the member may or may not want to verbally acknowledge their struggles to others at the station. This must be respected. Forcing someone to discuss private health information or why they have been off the job could negatively impact the individual and the entire crew.
2. Convey a supportive welcome back. While directly inquiring about a member’s health or treatment experience can be intrusive, don’t ignore the elephant in the room. Offering neutral supportive statements to a member transitioning back to work can help minimize mutual feelings of awkwardness while conveying a sense of trust and support. Simple statements such as, “We’re glad to have you back brother,” “It hasn’t been the same around here without you” or “Hey, I’m here if you need anything,” can go a long way.
3. Avoid comparisons or claims that you understand. Occasionally, well-intentioned attempts to empathize with someone else’s experience can have the opposite effect of minimizing their pain. You cannot truly understand what someone is going through unless you personally have walked in their shoes. Refrain from statements such as, “I had a friend who went through the same thing.” It’s okay to acknowledge you actually don’t understand, but you do still care. For more communication tips to use with a crew member who is struggling emotionally, consider these Five Statements to Avoid.
4. Small talk is good talk. Don’t be afraid to engage the returning member in a discussion about recent events in your station or community. Conversations such as these can help normalize the individual’s experience back at work by shifting focus from the individual to the daily operations of the job. These conversations help convey the message, “You are still one of us.” Cultivating a sense of comradery is essential to support the member’s reintegration back to the job and your crew.
5. Respect a modified workload. If a member is returning from a long absence due to mental or physical injury, bereavement or any other personal issue, they may be placed on light duty or receive temporary accommodations to support their transition. You may or may not agree with such accommodations, particularly if you feel the member’s past impairment or absence from the job has negatively impacted you in some way. While decisions made by your department to support a member’s transition are not up to you, they are to be respected.
6. Educate yourself. It is estimated that one in five fire fighters will suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) at some point during their career, while addiction and substance abuse affect fire fighters at the same or higher rate when compared to civilians. You can take a proactive role by learning about the risks, signs, and symptoms of behavioral health problems that commonly affect fire fighters and paramedics. Consider taking the IAFF Behavioral Health Awareness Course, a self-paced online course tailored to fire service.
7. Look out for one another. The hardest part of recovery begins after the individual is discharged from treatment. For some, relapse or resurgence of symptoms is a part of the recovery process. If you see changes in mood or behavior that could suggest a member is struggling to readjust at home or on the job, it’s a good idea to gently approach the member first and simply ask, “How are you doing with everything?” If you don’t feel comfortable or able to approach the member, talk to your next in command for guidance.
If you are a company officer and believe one of your crew members is struggling with a mental health or substance abuse problem, read more about how to intervene in our recent blog, How Officers Can Help a Fire Fighter in Need.
The IAFF Center of Excellence for Behavioral Health Treatment and Recovery may be the right choice for your fire fighter. The Center is a comprehensive treatment facility designed exclusively for IAFF members struggling with addiction, PTSD and other co-occurring mental health problems.
Lauren Kosc, M.A., LCPC is a behavioral health specialist, clinician and blog writer for the International Association of Fire Fighters. If you are an IAFF member in recovery and want to share your story, contact [email protected].