Group Counseling as a Tool for Fire Departments

Firefighter entering through a window

(Photo by Tim Olk)

By Elina Weiste, Tiina Koivisto, and Sanna Vehviläinen

Leadership in Firefighters’ Work

The work of firefighters is extremely demanding, both physically and psychosocially during alarms. However, the work also includes other kinds of tasks at the fire station in between these alarms. Although employees’ good physical performance has typically been highlighted as an essential requirement for maintaining work ability in demanding jobs, psychosocial well-being is an equally important element. The law regulates the monitoring of physical work ability, but mental health, for prevention of work ability problems and the promotion of health, is easily overshadowed.

Work ability issues are part of fire chiefs’ duties, as they play a key role in affecting work culture and in the learning of the work community. Creating a work culture that supports employees’ ability to work requires good human resource management (Kuoppala et al. 2008). Good leadership skills are especially important because of the nature of firefighters’ work. Fire chiefs not only need to handle strict operational management during alarms, they also need to do supervisory work in between alarms.

One of the reasons that supporting employees’ work ability is demanding for managers is the lack of clear models. The best models for supporting work ability in Finland are designed for situations in which work capacity is already at high risk. (Ahola 2011). Thus, having a more proactive approach to potential problems is a much more complex question, since the fire chief may have to face multiple employee concerns. This is an acute question in Finnish fire departments, as the average age of fire and rescue personnel is constantly rising, and older employees face multiple challenges in such a physically and mentally demanding job.

Promoting employees’ ability to work requires good leadership skills. These involve supporting not only physical and psychological well-being, but also work motivation and work/life coordination. Thus, the need for proactive talk is clear. This is seen as something different to routine talk about worries concerning everyday life (Jefferson 1980, 1988), which might be due to the fact that in firefighters’ work culture, a close communality and professional integrity are strong (Mankkinen 2011; Ministry of the Interior 2015).

Thus, when discussing work ability with employees who are in a challenging situation, fire chiefs may have to face a wide range of negative feelings, such as indignation, disappointment, and anxiety (Tiuraniemi 2007). This might be especially challenging for fire chiefs who have the double role of manager and “one of the guys” at a fire station. Thus, handling work ability-related issues proactively and bringing up these issues with an employee requires new learning in fire and rescue work communities. Moreover, as fire chiefs play a key role in maintaining the working capacity of their staff and in building an active culture that supports their ability to work, they often need support in their solitary leadership role. Earlier studies have provided encouraging results on how group counseling can support leadership work (Hyrkäs et al. 2005; Roth 2017; Sirola-Karvinen & Hyrkäs 2006, 2008).

The Body & Mind Project

To address these challenges, the Body & Mind project of the Finnish Institute of Occupational Health has created and promoted knowledge on work ability practices and has aimed to answer the following questions: How can we influence the motivation, knowledge, and skills of employees and supervisors to promote their work ability and health? How can we increase the means, skills, and willingness of supervisors and work communities to encourage their members to take care of their work ability and health?

The Body & Mind project is part of a larger project–the cooperation and competence network for promoting occupational health, safety, and well-being at work (2015–2018). This project aims to create a structurally strong, national cooperation and competence network for actors in workplace well-being, which functions on the regional level and is connected to international (especially neighboring areas’) networks. The project also aims to improve Occupational Health & Safety Worker (OHSW) competences and cooperation, and to support the utilization of OHSW services at workplaces. It is funded by the European Social Fund (ESF) and the Ministry of Social Affairs and Health.

Collective Development of Work Ability-Related Questions

The project has created and promoted knowledge on practices that aim to enhance the occupational well-being of firefighters through collective development. The project was planned, implemented, and evaluated collectively with researchers of the Finnish Institute of Occupational Health and the municipal fire departments that participated in the project.

Primer workshops

The process was initiated by Primer workshops that were held in several fire districts in Finland. The Primer workshop model is a tool that enables joint development of the workplace while increasing employees’ opportunities to influence their work environment (Salmi et al. 2017). The main idea is to inspire participants to think about the different dimensions of their own work ability, their roles as professionals, and their working conditions. In the Primer workshop, the participants draw a car, and use it as an aid to contemplate the characteristics of an employee with a high level of well-being, by describing them through the properties and components of the car. The participants analyze their thoughts through discussions using the Work Ability House model (Ilmarinen 2009), and identify the most significant factors influencing the issue. The analysis can also include an assessment of attributes based on whether development needs are related to those in the participant’s own work or workplace. (Salmi et al. 2017).

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One need that was identified in all workshops was the development of effective leadership practices for promoting work ability among firefighters. Fire chiefs voiced that they needed assistance in recognizing work ability-related questions and fostering the work ability of their employees at the workplace.

Professional guidance groups for fire chiefs

To address these needs, the project organized two professional guidance group sessions for fire chiefs during which they aimed to develop effective leadership practices for promoting work ability among their staff. The sessions (six sessions in total) were held in two of Finland’s fire districts. In one of the districts, the sessions mostly took place via Skype because of the long distances between fire stations. Each session had four to six fire or paramedic chiefs, one counselor, and one researcher. All the sessions were video-recorded. The sessions aimed to provide chiefs with an arena for reflecting on their leadership practices and learning to support the work ability of their employees and obtain peer support to enhance their own work ability. The group sessions differed in terms of counseling methods: one was relatively structured, goal oriented and solution focused, whereas the other was based on more open discussions on challenging ‘cases’ that the participants brought to the group.

During the sessions, it become evident that although professional guidance groups can provide fire chiefs with a significant arena for reflecting on their own leadership practices, the fire chiefs did not find it easy to participate in this type of reflective work in a group setting. For instance, they recurrently described the challenges related to staff management between alarms. These challenging management situations were, however, typically described as the consequence of unmotivated employees rather than of poor leadership practices. Overall, the fire chiefs treated their own opportunities to act in staff management situations as limited. Thus, rather than reflecting on their own work practices in professional guidance counseling, the fire chiefs addressed the need for concrete tools for enhancing the work ability of their employees.

Written guide and training sessions

To meet these needs, the Body & Mind project developed a written guide for fire chiefs on how to enhance the work ability of their employees in a group setting. The guide approaches the group setting from two perspectives: first, how a confidential and conversational atmosphere is fostered among the staff, and second, how planned group meetings can be used to resolve problems related to work ability. The idea is that, in addition to informal discussions, a chief can lead planned, goal-oriented group discussions to promote and support employees’ work ability. The guide provides tips on what a chief can do in practice to organize a planned group meeting and create an atmosphere that supports well-being at work.

To facilitate the use of the guide, the project also organized training sessions for fire chiefs. Two sets of training were organized in two different fire districts. The first training session involved basic information and discussion around the Work Ability House model (Ilmarinen 2009) and how the issues related to the model could be considered in a group setting. After the session, the fire chiefs held a group meeting with their employees to try out a planned group discussion to promote and support their employees’ work ability. The second training session was organized around topics that the fire chiefs felt were important to discuss in more detail. These were, for instance, how to motivate employees, how to deal with organizational changes at the workplace, and how to deal with depression and other mental health problems of employees, which are major causes of disability pension in Finland. In the second session, the fire chiefs’ own experiences of their planned group meetings were also explored. The idea was to broaden the participants’ understanding of work ability-related themes through joint discussions. At the end of the process, the participants were asked to give oral and written feedback on the training sessions.

Evaluation of the Collective Development Process

Collective development seemed to work well during the project and the fire district involved in the project was committed to developing its organization. The Primer workshops were received with great enthusiasm, and the method also stoked interest outside the project. The participants willingly attended and positively evaluated the group and training interventions. The fire chiefs clearly had a need to talk. The group and training sessions provided time and space to talk about work ability issues on a broader level than that which the culture of the fire and rescue work communities typically entails. These sessions also provided an important arena for the fire chiefs to discuss their management practices and issues related to their challenging dual role as manager on the one hand and “one of the guys” on the other. Receiving peer support and learning from each other were considered highly important.

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‘I learned to see things from different angles’

‘Peer discussion was great!’

‘I learned to question my own thinking’

The hierarchical organization structure arose in the groups’ discussions. It was experienced as limiting the fire chief’s possibilities to act: there was always a higher-level manager who had the power to overrule the decisions of the fire chief. The hierarchical organizational structure of a fire department consists of the rescue directorate, who is the head of the administrative and operational leadership and management of the rescue and security organization, followed by other chiefs who all have a different managerial position. Thus, the fire chief who operates on a practical level at the fire station may not have the power to make the decisions to necessary promote work ability.

The goals of the project and the tasks for achieving them were collaboratively talked about along the way. All agreed that it was important to discuss and find new solutions as a work community together. This arena for discussing management and work ability issues enabled fire chiefs to share their experiences as managers. However, it also created a desire to find quick, practical solutions during the group and training sessions. The fire chiefs asked for written guides and other tools that could be instantly used in everyday work. They felt that nothing really progressed if they were only discussed. This differed from the view of the researcher, who thought that new management practice models could not be given as direct guidelines but through the critical evaluation and exploration of one’s own thinking and step-by-step building of new practices together with colleagues and employees. Although these differing views were discussed during the project, explaining early on in the project how we understand and conceptualize learning on individual and collective levels would have been beneficial.

In line with these differences between our perceptions and those of the fire chiefs, our aim to critically reflect the fire chiefs’ own work practices was also unfamiliar and challenging for them. Reflective talk was avoided, for instance, by diminishing the fire chiefs’ ability to affect the behavior and attitudes of their employees. Learning such new, reflective discussion skills would have required a longer time. However, the group and training sessions were surprisingly successful in facilitating open discussion of work ability issues. The Work Ability House model (Ilmarinen 2009) seemed to work well in structuring the discussion and initiating talk on a wider range of work ability aspects than merely physical performance. Thus, in the future it might be useful to include concrete tasks or discussion questions in the written guide, on themes related to work ability, such as work stress, organizational change, working atmosphere, or mental health issues.

Development projects often aim to effect change on different levels. On an individual level, the fire chiefs participating in the project achieved learning and well-being benefits through the group and training sessions. On a collective level, the group and training sessions strengthened the peer support networks of the organizations. They also made the need for change in the communication culture of the fire and rescue work communities more visible. Being able to talk about a wide range of work and work ability-related issues in a structured and employee-centered way will be a skill required of fire chief in the future.

Elina Weiste and Tiina Koivisto are researchers for the Finnish Institute of Occupational Health.

Sanna Vehviläinen is a researcher with the University of Eastern Finland.


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