What About the Barrel?

Thinking outside the “bad apple” narrative.

Philip Zimbardo, Stanford Psychologist, is the lead researcher on one of the most infamous psychological experiments known. In fact, in spite of having little to no education in psychology, you would still have probably heard of it. The Stanford Prison Experiment was an experiment that went awry so quickly that surprised all involved.

Zimbardo wrote a book called, “The Lucifer Effect” – and argues eruditely on why good people may do bad things. This book is a bit lengthy but well worth the read no matter which rung you hang your hat on the organizational ladder. In it, Zimbardo makes a lengthy argument that, despite the reaction to blaming individuals for bad behavior, he found that the “barrel” (organization, group, situations) may be more to blame.

So, what does this have to do with firefighters? We have been instituting, talking, researching and working diligently at overcoming the mental health ailments that are attacking our folks. PTSD and other mental health disorders are costly both on the individual and on the organization. Organizations, in a reactive move, will scramble to assemble a rag-tag program aimed to overcome these issues.

We have a rather clear understanding in the literature that if our employees are burning out, that work efficacy (not to mention overall safety) plummets (Smith, Hughes, Dejoy, & Dyal, 2018). And, other research links the perceptions of superior officers and their levels of support to their firefighters as a significant variable in determining the impact of perceived stress (Varvel et al., 2007). This disconnection is not insignificant – a dive into the literature aimed at our Wildland brothers and sisters identified that “thwarted belongingness” was a significant risk factor for suicide (Stanley, Hom, Gai, & Joiner, 2018). We can comfortably assume, then, that if our members are feeling disconnected, unsupported, and have a lack of trust in the superiors, their burnout may increase.  And, with an increase in burnout, we can arguably conclude there is a heightened risk for mental health impacts on our employees.

Despite our wish to defend against an admission that our organization may be a key component to the mental health of the employee, this difficult introspection should be compulsory. Ignoring this comes at the peril of any proactive program that you may put together. Indeed, and without much adjustment, the world leading preventative programs may falter and fail you if it isn’t met with the necessary organizational composition and faith by the frontline employees. As found in Holm et al. (2016), the only noted differences between those who reached out and those who didn’t, were the overwhelming concerns around “reputation and embarrassment.”

We may do this inadvertently. Though obviously, there are some bad characters who will utilize such vulnerability to do harm to someone’s career, many more are likely wishing to help. It is through this “lack of literacy” that one could create damage. For instance, coercive participation (through making it mandatory) in mental health procedures (I’m looking at you compulsory CISM) may produce the counter effect that one is looking for. I believe its quite common knowledge to understand that forcing someone to participate in something does not necessarily yield a net good. Indeed, this may send the complete opposite message that you wish to send: Management doesn’t care about your overall health, simply about completing the procedure.

So, taking all this in what do we need to do?

Organizations, which are strong and willing, should complete an anonymous survey on employee’s perceptions of support from management. The simple fact that you fidgeted in your chair when you read that is a great indicator that your gut may already have a good answer for where your management ranking may sit.  There will always be outliers for whom nothing with satisfy, but we ought to shy from using those as counter-arguments against completing this process. What you’re seeking is certainly individual responses, but more broadly scanning for themes. What, overall, are your folks saying?

Then develop programming that is built not only upon firm, evidence supporting literature, but also upon foundations that provide a lasting and concrete base for your programming to sit. This means not simply hiring, for hiring sake, consultants, outside folks, employees “interested” in helping, etc. But, targeting specific folks to help shape and hone specific functions will produce a better outcome. You ought to ensure that those employees that you do decide to hire onto your mental health supporting the project are not simply “25-year vets and want on” but, empathic, caring and respected members of your crew. This may be the edge needed too, to buy you time to shake up the management approach in an effort to give evidence that you don’t just support such a movement, but that you stand behind it as well.

Lastly, but perhaps more controversial, you may wish to implement a confidentiality clause between your mental health team and the management staff. This provides a few things. Firstly, it will ensure that you hire based on skill and training (or will offer the training) on top of the above traits. You are giving them the responsibility that they can know a thing and as long as that information isn’t hurting themselves, others, the role, or putting others at risk, there is no need to inform the employer. Secondly, the potential for worrying that someone is a “mole” or “snitch” is taken out of the equation. The moment that a peer divulges information that does not violate the confidentiality agreement, your program has just lost all credibility. Thirdly, this sends a clear message that you trust both the employee and the team to care for each other. Management can step in for things that land outside of that agreed confidentiality clause, or when something requires the breaking of confidentiality, or when permission is given by the employee to involve the employer.

All in all, as we have mistakenly done for much of our approach to this, the piece-meal approach is not going to produce lasting, effective results. Recognizing that it isn’t just what we “see” but that it is also how your employees feel about what you think about that, is vitally important. If we carry the message that “talk when you need to”, we need to show them that such a message is bedrock to your foundation and not simply talking points.


  1. Zimbardo, P. (2007). The Lucifer effect: Understanding how good people turn evil.
  2. Smith, T. D., Hughes, K., DeJoy, D. M., & Dyal, M. A. (2018). Assessment of relationships between work stress, work-family conflict, burnout and firefighter safety behavior outcomes. Safety science103, 287-292.
  3. Varvel, S. J., He, Y., Shannon, J. K., Tager, D., Bledman, R. A., Chaichanasakul, A., … & Mallinckrodt, B. (2007). Multidimensional, threshold effects of social support in firefighters: Is more support invariably better?. Journal of Counseling Psychology54(4), 458.
  4. Stanley, I. H., Hom, M. A., Gai, A. R., & Joiner, T. E. (2018). Wildland firefighters and suicide risk: examining the role of social disconnectedness. Psychiatry research266, 269-274.
  5. Hom, M. A., Stanley, I. H., Ringer, F. B., & Joiner, T. E. (2016). Mental health service use among firefighters with suicidal thoughts and behaviors. Psychiatric services67(6), 688-691.