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Together we are stronger

How public safety leaders can help employees cope by promoting self-efficacy

24 Jul 2017 3:52 PM | International Public Safety Association (Administrator)

By Brian Bayani, Executive Director/EMS Chief, Northwest Community Health, IPSA Chair – Multidiscipline Mentoring Committee

The psychological well-being of employees has emerged as a significant focus for public safety organizations in recent years. The nature of the job often exposes personnel to high-stress situations and traumatic events (McFarlane, Williamson, & Barton, 2009), which have a profound impact on stress.

In EMS and the fire service, there is a relationship between distress and exposure to specific incident types, including child death, caring for a friend or family member and caring for disaster, crime and burn victims (Holland, 2011).

In law enforcement, similar relationships exist with use of force, particularly deadly force, and physical assault (Violanti & Aron, 1993).

The prevalence of stress and its manifestations among public safety professionals present significant challenges for leaders, though one potential pathway for managing stress may lie in the concept of self-efficacy.

Confidence or lack-of

Self-efficacy generally refers to an individual’s confidence in his or her ability to undertake a particular action or behavior to produce an outcome (Bandura, 1977).

Perceptions of self-efficacy can influence chosen behaviors (Bandura, 1982). For example, if an employee believes he or she can successfully perform positive coping behaviors, they may be more likely to engage in those behaviors. Similarly, an employee may avoid certain coping behaviors if he or she believes they are incapable of performing the behavior.

The notion of self-efficacy also influences cognitions and stress reactions (Bandura, 1982). Benight and Bandura (2004) found that high coping self-efficacy was associated with lower perceived risk and buffered stress reactions to potential threats. Individuals with higher coping self-efficacy were also less preoccupied by intrusive thoughts stemming from potential threatening situations and had shorter stress recovery periods and lower overall distress.

Self-efficacy perceptions affect motivation to deal with challenging or threatening situations and for how long and to what extent one will persevere when confronted with such situations (Bandura, 1982; Benight & Bandura, 2004).

Well-being, PTSD, or burnout

It is not surprising then that self-efficacy frequently correlates to measures of psychological and general well-being. For example, a study of emergency medical dispatchers found self-efficacy to be a significant predictor of well-being in that population, but failed to identify self-efficacy as a significant predictor of post-traumatic stress syndrome or post-traumatic growth (Shakespeare-Finch, Rees, & Armstrong, 2015).

In contrast, a study of patients who had endured significant physical trauma found that low self-efficacy was a significant predictor for the development of post-traumatic stress syndromes (Flatten, Wälte, & Perlitz, 2008). Self-efficacy also mediates between post-traumatic stress symptoms and perceptions of cognitive difficulties in certain situations (Samuelson, Bartel, Valadez, & Jordan, 2016).

Burnout is a specific manifestation of stress with three dimensions: exhaustion, cynicism, and feelings of ineffectiveness (Maslach, Schaufeli, and Leiter 2001). Burnout has been shown to contribute to life satisfaction, job satisfaction, and perception of job demands (Ângelo & Chambel, 2015; Gökçen, Zengin, Oktay, Alpak, Al, & Yildirim, 2013; Reizer, 2015). A study of Italian fire and emergency medical services workers found self-efficacy negatively correlated to burnout following exposure to traumatic events (Prati, Pietrantoni, & Cicognani, 2010).

Consistent with Benight and Bandura (2004), the study concluded that emergency personnel tended to have less severe responses to stressful situations when self-efficacy perceptions were higher. Fida, Laschinger and Leiter (2016) similarly found that higher levels of self-efficacy correlated to lower levels of exhaustion and cynicism among nurses. Both exhaustion and cynicism negatively correlated to mental health. Shoji, Cieslak, Smoktunowicz, Rogala, Benight, and Luszczynska (2016) also found a negative effect of self-efficacy on burnout, positing that development of personal self-efficacy was beneficial in coping with negative occupational experiences.

Leadership style influences self-efficacy

The subject of leadership has gained considerable interest as a factor in both the self-efficacy percepts and stress of employees. One study found that leadership behaviors that demonstrate honesty, integrity and moral values positively correlated to higher employee self-efficacy (Fallatah, Laschinger, & Read, 2017). An inverse relationship also exists between abusive supervision and self-efficacy, such that self-efficacy percepts are lower when employees perceive abusive behavior by their supervisors (Zhi-Xia & Hong-Yan, 2017).

With regard to stress, supportive leadership correlated with lower stress and fewer negative stress outcomes among military members (Britt, Davison, Bliese, & Castro, 2004). Additionally, a qualitative study of paramedics also found that EMS workers who reported positive experiences with stressful situations described supportive behaviors by their leaders (Clompus & Albarran, 2016). Chen and Bliese (2002) found that the degree to which subordinates perceived leaders to provide task direction and social support positively correlated to subordinate self-efficacy and negatively correlated to psychological strain.

Nielsen and Munir (2009) found a relationship between visionary, creative and inspiring leadership styles and overall well-being, also confirming a mediating role of self-efficacy on the relationship between transformational leadership and well-being. Liu, Siu, and Shi (2010) also found that this style of transformational leadership positively correlated to self-efficacy and that self-efficacy moderated the effect of leadership behaviors on occupational stress.

Laschinger, Borgogni, Consiglio, and Read (2015) found a positive relationship between authentic leadership style and nurses’ self-efficacy. Consistent with prior studies, self-efficacy was negative correlated to work strain, components of burnout, and psychological well-being. Further still, Rahbar, Zare, and Akbarian Bafghi (2016) found that relationship-building, supporting and empowering behaviors by leaders negatively correlate to components of employee burnout and positively correlated to employee self-efficacy.

Research disparities

A small segment of prior research has failed to establish significant correlations between self-efficacy and psychological well-being. It is worth noting also that there is some evidence to suggest that high self-efficacy may have a deleterious effect on mental health in certain specific situations (Schönfeld, Preusser, & Margraf, 2017).

In general, however, increasing empirical evidence has affirmed self-efficacy as an important factor in promoting psychological well-being. In studies that challenge the global benefit of self-efficacy, researchers largely attribute inconsistencies to specific contextual circumstances and differences in personal characteristics.

Importance of prior performance

Bandura postulated that self-efficacy is influenced by several factors. The most significant of these is prior performance.

Simply, prior successful performance of a task or behavior increases the belief that the employee can replicate that behavior or similar behaviors in the future. Exposing employees to challenge stressors through simulation training and problem solving opportunities, for example, can build resilience to future stressors.

To a lesser extent, observing others perform target behaviors and receiving positive encouragement also develop self-efficacy. By modeling positive coping skills and behaviors, leaders may be able to increase subordinates’ beliefs that they also cope with stress positively. Similarly, providing encouragement and promoting stress management initiatives such as peer support or wellness programs can have positive effects on staff self-efficacy and stress reduction.

About the Author

Chief Bayani is a Licensed Paramedic and Master Peace Officer in the State of Texas. He currently serves as the Executive Director of Northwest Community Health in Tomball, Texas, and is the Chair of the IPSA Multidiscipline Mentoring Committee. He received his Master’s Degree in Public Administration from Sam Houston State University and a Bachelor’s Degree in Applied Administration from the University of Houston – Downtown. Chief Bayani is also a doctoral student in the Cook School of Leadership at Dallas Baptist University.

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