Stress Reduction: A Key To Self-Motivation

The normal thrust of any article about motivation that you might read in a modern fire service magazine is usually directed toward the person working in a supervisory capacity. That article will discuss the many ways to create a well-motivated work force. This is a valid approach, in that it is the effective leader who normally sets the tone and tenor in any working environment. This goes along hand-in-glove with the old legend that water generally flows downhill.

I too have taken this approach on many occasions. How can an organization succeed if the leader fails to motivate the troops? That is a critical part of every discussion of organizational success we have ever read. However, I am not going to speak about motivating the troops in this column.

No, in keeping with my usual proclivity for playing the devil's advocate and taking the flip side of an argument, it is my intention to discuss the topic of motivation from the inside out. I am here to talk about self-motivation this month. More importantly, I want to discuss the role that stress reduction plays in self-motivation, and the maintenance of sanity within the head of an effective leader.

Not only is this a topic that is usually absent in the trade publications, there is a really good reason for each and every member of the American fire service to consider the matter of self-motivation. I firmly believe that it falls under the general heading of "all work and no play make Jack (or Jill) a dull boy (or girl)." If they are really lucky, they will just be dull and boring. If they are not so lucky, all work and no play will destroy Jack's/Jill's psyche and turn them into burned-out hulks.

It is critical to note that not every one of your leaders out there has bothered to read about or learn about how to motivate people. Of course by my definition, if you do not know these things, you can hardly be considered a leader. Even worse, you never bother to stop and see what your job is doing to you.

It has been my experience that people who are not steeped in the lore of motivation can be easily identified. In watching them at work, you are easily convinced that you have seen them before, perhaps in a movie. The problem comes from the fact that they played the part of the concentration camp guard in a cheap World War II movie.

This perception is all well and good, if you are just observing these people as a dispassionate spectator, from the outside. Unfortunately, if you are serving as one of the inmates in the prison camp, things take on a decidedly different tinge.

The problem with this situation stems from the fact that most of you do not have the ability to just pick up and move to a new work environment. Maybe you have 15-20 years tied up in your department. It might also be that you feel that your particular boss is just passing through and that you will simply outlast him or her.

Whatever the reason, working in an environment such as this can age a person rapidly. Perhaps you like the job and not the boss. If this is the case, at least it's a bit easier to work around the problem. In any event, what steps might you take to make a tough situation a bit easier to endure? You will have to indulge in stress relief to remain sane and able to lead the troops under your command.

The first thing I would suggest for you to do is divide your life into three distinct components.

  • Home
  • Work
  • Play

Some of the worst stress-related cases of burnout come from situations where people do not consciously separate their working selves from their at-home selves. This I know for a fact. We know this because I have personally suffered a great deal from this very problem.

Essentially, this is a trap into which you can quite easily fall. And you can fall never really suspecting that you are being sucked into a bog of quicksand. This is especially true if you really like your job and care a great deal about how it is done. Whether you carry your work home in a briefcase or in your mind, the result can end up being the same.

Alternately you are tired, cranky and irritable with your family. You cannot kick the boss, so you kick the dog (or in my case the cat). In some cases, people who are disturbed by what is happening at work take out their frustrations on family members. In extreme situations, this can even lead to physical abuse of family members. Eventually, you can become withdrawn and unapproachable. And in really stressful situations, one might turn to alcohol, drugs, easy women or some combination of the above.

It is extremely important that you make a conscious effort to throw your mental switch to the at-home mode as you turn off the lights on the way out of your office. I can remember nights when I got home in my at-work mode and met the charming Mrs. Carter in her at-home mode. Believe me, it is easier to throw the switch yourself - BEFORE YOU GET HOME.

During the days when I was still a full-time career chief, as well as a fire protection consultant and volunteer firefighter, it was difficult to get away from my work. Sometimes, when the line between the two blurred and my mind started to lock up, I was fortunate in that I was able to slip on the headphones of my cassette player and create whatever time or place in history that I would rather be in. When I became a tuba player, this allowed me to create, and live within, many new fantasies.

Since the invention of the Walkman style of music player, anyone can create the necessary mood swings toward relaxation without disturbing anyone around you. If you are in an environment where such diversions as a personal CD or cassette player are definitely out of the question, you will have to fall back upon the old reliable: daydreaming. Let me tell you, daydreaming is not necessarily a bad thing.

It has been my experience that with a bit of practice, a little imagination and the right breathing pattern, I can mentally be in the midst of one of the most relaxing experiences I have ever had in my life. It comes from the days before children, when my wife and I were able to pack up and go away for a few days every now and then. One of our favorite destinations was the Thousand Islands area of New York State.

My relaxing daydream places me on the rear porch of my favorite motor lodge in Alexandria Bay, NY. While sitting in that dreamland of relaxation, I picture in my mind's eye the massive ore freighters plying the St. Lawrence River. They dwarf the motel and me as they pass so close I feel as though I could touch them. I can hear the mournful cries of their deep-throated horns and feel the spray of the passing motorboats.

In my mind's eye I can see the little speedboats whisking the visitors out to Boldt Castle in the middle of the river. And most importantly I can picture myself quietly reading a war novel and enjoying a puff on one of my favorite cigars. A few moments of this little scenario usually allows me to gather the pieces of my fractured psyche. I can then put myself back together for whatever tough task I have need to tackle.

Once you have gotten into the habit of using your at-home and at-work positions on the switch of human frailty, try out the third position: at-play. This is the hardest position to reach. Many people become very comfortable in their at-home mode, clicking channels and growing into true, homegrown couch potatoes. They fail to realize that there is more to the world. How hard is this movement of the switch? In my case, I have finally chipped the rust off of the dial. Over the last few summers, my family and I have truly taken a number of vacations from all of my commitments: an honest-to-goodness, out-of-state vacation.

This seems more critical now that ever before, because it is possible that we have made the mistake of making a hobby out of our job. That's right, every aspect of my life revolves around the fire service.

  • Primary job
  • Volunteer job
  • Consulting job

My real play comes when I sit down at the music stand and play my tuba along with the greats of the music world. I still occasionally curl up with a good Tom Clancy or W.E.B. Griffin novel, or maybe I hide in my office pausing to conduct the Queen's Own Highland Fusiliers in a concert of British military music.

On occasion, I meet with friends who are fellow Anglophiles (lovers of the lore of the United Kingdom) and we show slides of ours trips there or, in my case, display my collection of military campaign medals that dates back to the Crimean War.

What I want you to remember here is that all of these efforts at play I have discussed are about as far from the fire service as I can make them. Therefore, my mind can move into neutral and merely enjoy the activities for their pleasurable content. This is the gift of mental relaxation, between periods of intense job and work-related stress. The effective leader needs to be able to turn it off and relax, if they are to remain effective.

The point of this little bit of commentary is that all work and no play can make Jack a dull boy. Hardly a brilliant practical discovery, is it? However, the true importance of this little bit of advice is that if Jack stays a dull boy for too long, he will stress out and suffer from any of the following maladies of modern maturity:

  • Ulcers
  • Heart attack
  • Divorce
  • Substance abuse

None of these are conducive to you being an effective fire service leader. So take time to relax. And remember to use the three-position switch theory to improve your stress-reduction capability.

Harry R. Carter, Ph.D., MIFireE, is a Firehouse® contributing editor. A municipal fire protection consultant based in Adelphia, NJ, he is a former president of the International Society of Fire Service Instructors (ISFSI). Dr. Carter is an associate professor at Mercer County Community College and a past chief and active life member of the Adelphia Fire Company. A fire commissioner for Howell Township District 2, he retired from the Newark, NJ, Fire Department in 1999 as a battalion commander. He also served as chief of training and commander of the Hazardous Materials Response Team. Dr. Carter is a Member of the Institution of Fire Engineers of Great Britain (MIFireE). You can contact him through his website at