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Peer support: The key to combatting occupational stress

Understaffed, overworked first responders need robust wellness programs to combat stress

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Lexipol Media Group’s comprehensive state-of-the-industry surveys reveal a striking correlation between staffing shortages and elevated stress levels among first responders, significantly affecting their job satisfaction, performance, wellness, safety and relationships. The alarming statistics underscore the escalating need for robust wellness support systems.

In a recent Lexipol webinar, a panel of public safety experts examined results more than 4,100 law enforcement officers, 3,100 paramedics and 2,100 firefighters.

The panel included:

  • Dr. Maria Beermann-Foat, PhD, MBA, NRP; EMS training coordinator, Eugene-Springfield Fire Department; and director at-large, NAEMT
  • Chief Brian Fennessy, Orange County (CA) Fire Authority
  • Greg Friese, MS, NRP, editorial director, Lexipol Media Group
  • Mandy Nice, NSCA TSAC-F*D, NSCA CPT*D, strategic wellness director, Lexipol
  • Chief Roger Schei, Pocatello (ID) Police Department

Together, they discussed key takeaways about first responders’ stress levels and leadership’s role in managing their personnel’s wellness. One of the main themes to emerge was how essential peer support programs can be to encouraging open and honest discourse and supporting a culture of wellness.

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Watch the full discussion: Stressed and Short-Staffed? What YOU Can Do About It

Memorable quotes from the webinar

  • “Peer support can be both formal or informal.” — Greg Friese, MS, NRP
  • “I think peer support is one of those things where both the person asking for it and giving it receive benefit.” — Greg Friese, MS, NRP
  • “Every problem is a leadership problem” — Chief Roger Schei
  • “The first thing we have to remember is that everything that we do is really all about interpersonal relationships. We’re dealing with people that are taking care of people out in the real world.” — Dr. Maria Beermann-Foat, PhD, MBA, NRP
  • “Let your people know it’s OK to not be OK. And I think once that is built with … that culture, then that’s what will help with the negative stigma that first responders have … so it’s okay to not be OK. — Chief Roger Schei
  • “It’s great to have tools and resources. But it’s even better when agency leaders and agency members can step up and take tangible steps to weave wellness into the everyday life of these first responders in pure support.” — Mandy Nice, NSCA TSAC-F*D, NSCA CPT*D

The rising need for peer support

The data presented from Lexipol Media Group’s state-of-the-industry surveys revealed that staffing shortages contribute exponentially to first responders’ stress levels, impacting their job satisfaction, performance, wellness, safety and relationships:

  • 70% of firefighters, 63% of medics say staffing shortages have increased their level of stress
  • 32% of firefighters and 30% of medics report stress is negatively affecting the quality of service they provide
    67% of firefighters and 51% of medics report stress is negatively impacting their health
  • 47% of firefighters and 41% of medics report stress is negatively affecting their relationships with family

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Webinar attendees were asked which coping strategies they utilize to manage work-related stress. About half of the attendees noted they use peer support to try to manage their stress.


These data points clearly exhibit the amplified need for wellness support systems. In the discussion, Chief Roger Shai emphasized the value of peer support, noting that it has been instrumental in his department. He highlighted the implementation of a cadet program, fostering early engagement and support among recruits.

Leadership stewardship of peer support programs

The discussion highlighted a crucial point, “Every problem is a leadership problem,” underscoring the significance of a supportive leadership in creating a healthy work environment.

Benefits of peer support programs

Peer support programs provide a unique avenue for stress relief and mental health support, as they are based on mutual understanding and shared experiences. Key benefits include:

  • Enhanced emotional resilience. By sharing experiences, first responders can better process their emotions, leading to increased resilience.
  • Reduction in stigma. Peer support normalizes seeking help for mental health issues within the emergency services community, and providing a formalized program shows personnel it’s OK to not be OK.
  • Improved job satisfaction. Supportive relationships at work can mitigate job-related stress, enhancing overall job satisfaction.

How to implement effective peer support systems

To establish a successful peer support program, consider the following:

  • Leadership involvement. As highlighted by Chief Brian Fennessy in the discussion, leadership plays a critical role. Leaders should actively support and participate in the program.
  • Training peer supporters. Equip selected peers with appropriate training to handle sensitive conversations and provide effective support.
  • Confidentiality and trust. Ensure that the program operates within a framework of confidentiality to build trust among participants.

Implementing these programs can strengthen your workforce and first responders’ resiliency.
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EMS1 is using generative AI to create some content that is edited and fact-checked by our editors.

Kerri Hatt is editor-in-chief, EMS1, responsible for defining original editorial content, tracking industry trends, managing expert contributors and leading execution of special coverage efforts. Prior to joining Lexipol, she served as an editor for medical allied health B2B publications and communities.

Kerri has a bachelor’s degree in English from Saint Joseph’s University, in Philadelphia. She is based out of Charleston, SC. Share your personal and agency successes, strategies and stories with Kerri at