Study analyses: How stressed are rescue workers?

In cooperation with the University of Lübeck, the University of Bremen, the Ruhr University Bochum, the MSH Medical School Hamburg and the Arbeiter-Samariter-Bund (ASB – the Workers‘ Samaritan Federation) Dortmund, the Leibniz Research Centre for Working Environment and Human Factors in Dortmund (IfADo) has conducted a study to investigate how stressed rescue workers are. The focus was particularly on their own perception of stress and the physical examination of stress. The results of the study have now been published.

Photo: ASB NRW e.V.

Rescue workers are often exposed to acute stressors. Stressors are all internal and external events that cause stress and thus put the body on alert. In the case of rescue workers, stressors can be, for example, the confrontation with suffering people, violence and death, the low perceived value of their work as well as the disruption of the day-night rhythm due to shift work.

Despite the large number of stressors, however, rescue workers often seem to ignore stress. This can be harmful and lead to stress-related illnesses. A study was therefore conducted to investigate the discrepancy between the stress response reported by rescue workers and the actual measured physical stress response. 16 rescue workers and 17 office workers participated in the study.

Discrepancy between perceived and measured stress

The results of the study show that the physical stress levels, measured by the stress hormone cortisol, were higher in the morning of a rescue worker’s day than of the office workers. Furthermore, a change in immune parameters associated with stress was observed not only on work days but also during days off. ECG recordings during a complete 24-hour shift also documented acute stress of rescue workers on the way to rescue operations. Despite the physiologically measured higher stress levels, rescue workers subjectively reported significantly less stress than office workers when interviewed. However, rescue workers scored higher on the depersonalisation scale – a facet of burnout.

In addition, the study revealed that stressors in emergency services were related to an increase in worry, social isolation, irritation and negative affect, as well as to a reduced experience of flow during work, less enjoyment and a poorer ability to switch off from work. In summary, the study results suggest higher stress in paramedics compared to office workers. These findings therefore highlight the importance of developing stress management interventions for paramedics, including raising awareness of their stress responses.

Following the study, ASB Dortmund, under the leadership of Holger Steffens, has started to develop tailored concepts for stress management for emergency workers internally. „The results of the pilot study and the scientific support in the development phase were decisive in configuring appropriate workshops for emergency forces and also integrating relaxation techniques into the concept,“ reports Mr. Steffens.

Original publication:
Peifer, C., Hagemann, V., Claus, M., Larra, M. F., Aust, F., Kühn, M., Owczarek, M., Broede, P., Pacharra, M., Steffens, H., Watzl, C., Wascher, E., & Capellino, S. (2021). Low self-reported stress despite immune-physiological changes in paramedics during rescue operations. EXCLI Journal, 20, 792-811.

Scientific Contact: 
Prof. Dr. Silvia Capellino
Head of Group Neuroimmunology
Phone: +49 231 1084-420

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