7 steps to better morale in your EMS agency

Apply leadership actions consistently and regularly to improve the morale in your EMS agency

For EMS leaders, raising morale can sometimes feel like an impossible task. Some leaders, especially in voluntary organizations, feel that it is crucial to success. Others believe personnel don't have to like it. They just have to do what they are told.

Is it worth the time and effort to help your staff – paid or volunteer – feel better about working in your organization? Resoundingly, human resources experts say, "Yes" [1].

The Oxford Dictionary describes morale as, "The confidence, enthusiasm, and discipline of a person or group at a particular time [2]."

A recent article in the Houston Chronicle pointed out that poor morale may negatively impact an organization's reputation as well as staff turnover, performance and even work related stress and absenteeism [3].

On the positive side, according to the 2009 landmark study, the "MacLeod Report" (formally known as "Engaging for Success: Enhancing Performance Through Employee Engagement"), it is clear that good employee morale leads to increased employee engagement with an organization [4]. The report’s author, David MacLeod, defines employee engagement as "the conditions in which employees offer more of their capability and potential."

In EMS, where we rely on our staff to be simultaneous technical experts and customer service providers, how can we provide anything less than the conditions for full employee engagement and expect to survive?

While many factors may affect morale and engagement, the MacLeod Report points to four primary "enablers."

1. Leadership’s Strategic Narrative

2. Engaging Managers

3. Employees Voice

4. Organizational Integrity

7 Cs of employee engagement

But how can leaders in emergency services apply these abstract enablers to improve morale and engagement for their real-world organizations? The answer is through seven progressive steps, each building on the progress of earlier steps.

1. Communication

Action steps: Be active and accessible. Follow up and follow through. Leadership happens through communication. The key is not simply putting information out, but ensuring that your staff has heard, understood and acted on it. Since communication is two-way street, it is just as crucial that they know you have heard, understood and taken action on what they tell you.

There are four points of communication to keep in mind. Points one and two are to be active and accessible. Don't sit in the ivory tower of your office or supervisor vehicle issuing directives. Get out there and let people know what you want to tell them face-to-face and listen to what they have to say. This practice is known as Management by Walking Around. MBWA also allows the opportunity for employees to have their own voices heard.

Points three and four of communication are follow-up and follow-through. If your team is accountable to you, then you are accountable to them.

A proven morale crusher is the leader who demonstrates, "Do as I say, not as I do!" If a staff member brings something to your attention that needs to be addressed, make sure that you follow through and address it, and that you follow up and get back to them, even if you weren't able to fix the problem to everyone's satisfaction.

2. Core values

Action steps: Build effective organizational mission, vision and values with your staff and make them part of every day activities. What is at the center of this communication we’re talking about? Many EMS organizations have developed mission, vision and value statements to help employees understand the purpose of the organization, how members should work to achieve this purpose and the difference in the world that the organization seeks to make.

Unfortunately, many mission, vision and value statements are unclear at best. Others are developed and written so poorly that they confuse employees more than they clarify.

Ask the following questions about your departments mission, vision and value statements:

  • Are they clearly written? Will both providers and the public understand?
  • Are they concise? Short enough that any employee could repeat them at any time? You can’t "follow" what you can’t remember.
  • Are they communal? Do employees feel that they have a say in the development or updates to the mission, vision and value statements?
  • Are they communicated? Not only what the words say, but what their purpose is and the fact that the organization is committed to them.

Keep in mind that the mission, vision and values of an organization must be clearly communicated in the day-to-day goals and expectations made of front-line staff as well as the resources that are provided to them to do the job.

3. Caring

Action steps: Show your staff that you care. This does not simply mean caring about patients, although that may be a part of it. It is a signal that the organization cares about the same things that the staff care about. When these are aligned, and staff members see it, they are happier and become dedicated to and engaged with the organization.

While the things organizations and individuals care about will vary, one thing that unifies us all is caring for family. Simple ways that an EMS organization can show that it cares about what staff members care about include:

  • Birthday cards
  • Holiday cards
  • Invitations to organization’s events
  • Family "coffee hour" during holidays
  • An infant-sized onsie with the department logo for expecting parents

Whether cooked in-house or catered, inviting families to share a meal and a few moments during a holiday shift is a morale booster. (Photo courtesy of Rom Duckworth)

4. Camaraderie

Action step: Foster open communications and a team mindset. An agency that does not recognize the value of camaraderie will find staff members who may not support each other, or if they do, will do so at the expense of the organization. While the term "brotherhood" is most often connected with the fire service, firefighters do not have a monopoly on the concept.

Also referred to as esprit de corps or camaraderie, this is a feeling of connectedness that employees have with one another. Such a team mindset is built bit by bit every day through open communications. Leadership should strive to communicate and act in ways that benefit the organization and also values and supports team members and the team dynamic.

People feel more part of a team when they wear the same uniform or even share the same T-Shirt. (Photo courtesy of Rom Duckworth)

5. Celebrations

Action Steps: Show how you value and appreciate your team members. A critical way to show – not just tell – team members that you recognize and appreciate them and their contributions is to celebrate team members’ personal and professional accomplishments as well as accomplishments of the organization as a whole. Public celebrations can include recognition in the crew room, on the apparatus floor or during staff meetings.

Celebrations can be as formal as a sit down dinner or as informal as a cup of coffee and a thank you note. (Photo courtesy of Betsy Duckworth)

Some services ensure recognition by scheduling in-house ceremonies or through participation in local, regional, state and national awards. The general rule is to celebrate in public, correct in private, but good leaders know what works best for their personnel. Private celebrations can include a simple face-to-face thank you, or perhaps a handwritten note on department letterhead.

Recognize hard working team members by nominating them for local or national awards. (Photo courtesy of Betsy Duckworth)

6. Commitment to growth

Action step: Ask what they need. Find a way to assist. Likewise, organizations can show support for team members' needs and challenges. This can include providing peer-support, mentoring, career guidance and goal setting and employee assistance programs. Of course, just offering programs does not mean that what is offered necessarily meets what employees need. Again, communication is key. Start by simply asking, "What do you need?"

7. Consistency

Action steps: Be transparent. Stay consistent. When it comes to EMS leaders either commending or correcting staff, McGregor’s "Red Hot Stove" rule should be followed. This rule says that for situations where staff seeks to meet/exceed the expectations of core values (positive) or fails to meet the core values (negative) the reaction from leadership should be all of the following:

  • Foreseeable: No one should be surprised by the organization's expectations are because they were properly communicated.
  • Immediate: Minimize unnecessary delay before the positive commendation or the corrective action is taken.
  • Impersonal: Action is taken to recognize a good job, or correct a problem, regardless of who the individual happens to be.
  • Consistent: Follow up is applied the same way, every time.

Sailing the 7 Cs to improved morale and increased engagement

Managers engaging with these action steps on a daily basis, listening to employees’ voice and ensuring organizational integrity will help staff members, as a team, connect with the organization’s strategic narrative. In 2014, a follow-up study of the MacLeod Report showed that employees of organizations that focused on these four enablers, "displayed a great organizational commitment … were more willing to put in discretionary effort and … got a greater sense of achievement from their job [5]."

Turning a large ship is never easy, but as you work to shift the culture of your organization through consistent, regular actions, morale will begin to improve, engagement will increase and more team members will be willing to give you their all. Most importantly, your workplace will become a better place.


1. The High Cost of Low Morale by Nicole Fink. (2014).

2. Oxford Dictionaries. Morale: definition of morale in Oxford dictionary (American English) (US). oxforddictionaries.com Available at: http://www.oxforddictionaries.com/us/definition/american_english/morale. (Accessed: 12 May 2016)

3. Magloff, L. How Does Employee Morale Impact Turnover? Houston Chronical Available at: http://smallbusiness.chron.com/employee-morale-impact-turnover-11108.html. (Accessed: 12 May 2016)

4. MacLeod, D. & Clarke, N. Engaging for Success:. (2009).

5. Dromey, J. Macleod and Clarke's concept of employee engagement: an analysis based on the Workplace Employment Relations Study. (Ref, 2014).

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