Canadian Firefighter Magazine

Features
Dispatches: How safe do you feel at work?

March 27, 2020
By Jennifer Grigg

In his book Why Leaders Eat Last, Simon Sinek talks about the effects work environment has on people. He provides a fascinating perspective on what we all know to be true, but perhaps didn’t have the words or the awareness to articulate until now.

While I haven’t yet read the book, you can bet that it’s been added to my reading list. I found out about it when I came across an interview with Marie Forleo and Sinek discussing key concepts in the book. It was a conversation so powerfully engaging I couldn’t help but continuously pause it and feverishly scribble down note after note.

As a body language coach, I often talk about oxytocin and how it’s produced in the brain through nonverbal behaviour like eye contact and haptics (the scientific word for touch). It’s known as the “cuddle hormone” and it fosters connection. It’s the hormone behind that “feel-good” feeling that you get when you do something nice for someone with no expectation of anything in return — this is also experienced by the person receiving the kind action as well as anyone who witnesses the interaction.

As Sinek says, we’re “designed” to take care of people. It feels good. When we take care of others, and create that flood of oxytocin, it boosts our immune system, makes us more generous, and creates a ripple effect of good. In his words, “it’s the human body’s desperate attempt to look after each other.”

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I also talk about another chemical that’s produced in the brain known as the “stress hormone” and that’s cortisol. It increases heart rate, blood pressure, respiration and muscle tension, and shuts down the body’s systems that aren’t needed in the face of a crisis, such as digestion. People that constantly feel stressed have elevated levels of cortisol coursing through their body, wearing them down.

Your body language directly affects and influences both of these hormones — which is why I talk about them both so much. It’s also important to note that hormone levels can also change rapidly depending on environmental cues.

“When you create an environment where you allow that (oxytocin) to flow, it does so naturally,” he writes. “When you create environments where we restrict that, it does the opposite. It releases a chemical called cortisol, which is the feeling of stress and anxiety. Cortisol actually inhibits oxytocin, which means that if we work in a poorly led organization, not only do we have high stress, it inhibits empathy. In other words, I’m less likely to even want to care about somebody because of the poor leadership or poor environment that’s been provided for me to work in. The more cortisol you have in your body, stress goes up, anxiety goes up, it affects our immune systems.”

Let’s look at this in terms of your job as a firefighter. What happens if you are less likely to care about somebody that you’re in the business of caring for? I’m sure we’d like to think that nothing could affect that particular aspect of your job or your ability to be empathetic to those you’ve signed on to serve, but what if? Hence my original question of “how safe do you feel at work?”

The leaders of the organization are responsible for the environment that you work in, and since we respond to and are influenced by the environment we work in, if you feel safe in the environment, everyone benefits.

So, leaders, ask yourselves what you’re doing to create an environment that brings out the very best in your members. Are you creating oxytocin or cortisol in your people, your colleagues, those in your charge?

If you look at things in terms of lost time, sick leave, insurance costs, replacement staffing, administrative issues, grievances, staff relocations, shift assignments, etc., you’ll see clear indicators of the environment you’ve created.

Ask yourself: across the higher levels of leadership, how happy are your people? What is the quality of your daily interactions, the effectiveness of your meetings, the results of your SOPs and SOGs? Is the culture improving? Would your people follow you regardless of your title?

The fire service is ever evolving. The quality of our face-to-face interactions and interpersonal relationships are more important than ever, and are more dependent on communicating effectively.

A chief training officer of a large department recently told me: “The fire service isn’t about busting down doors and saving lives anymore. It’s changed.” The people in your organization are your most valuable asset, care for them as if they were your own family and they’ll go the distance for you.


Jennifer Grigg has been a dispatcher, volunteer firefighter, FPO inspector and instructor. She is now a resilience and empowerment coach and certified body language trainer. Contact Jennifer at jennygrigg312@gmail.com or jennifergriggcoaching.com.