Work & performance

September 14 2016

Targeting certain behaviours can improve health in high-risk occupations

By Australian Psychological Society

In high-risk occupations, leaders can protect the health of their staff by promoting certain behaviours like getting enough sleep, dealing with grief or talking up about stress.

High-risk occupations are often linked with psychological and physical stress but new research suggests leadership skills that target specific outcomes may lead to better results for employee health.

While studies have traditionally considered the impact of general leadership skills on employee performance, the United States Army is investigating the use of developing specific health leadership skills to improve the performance and psychological outcomes of its soldiers.

The emerging research could have major implications for people working in a range of high-risk occupations, from defence force personnel through to police and other emergency services.

Targeting leadership skills

Soldiers on combat deployment are at greater risk of mental health problems, including Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), depression, anxiety, and anger or aggression. They are also more likely to experience insomnia, substance abuse and relationship problems.

While leaders can partly buffer soldiers against these issues, researchers now believe general leadership skills, which have traditionally focused on establishing a vision or accomplishing the mission, can be bolstered by targeted leadership skills.

A growing body of research shows developing leadership skills for specific areas, such as coping with grief or occupational safety, can achieve better overall outcomes than general leadership alone.

Researchers at the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research (WRAIR) in the United States have embarked on the first studies to develop targeted leadership skills for high-risk occupations, such as the military service.

The Institute’s research has initially focused on combatting sleep deprivation – a major health problem for deployed soldiers, which is often linked to psychological and organisational problems.

“Sleep is a significant challenge for soldiers and a critically important topic of research within our Institute. We have a whole team dedicated to just studying sleep,” says Dr Amy Adler (PhD), a clinical research psychologist at WRAIR’s Center for Military Psychiatry and Neuroscience.

“There’s a great deal of research and attention paid to the importance of sleep and the consequences – emotional, cognitive and performance – if you don’t get enough sleep.

“Sleep problems matter in terms of emotional wellbeing and functioning, and it also puts people at risk for developing additional mental health problems.”

Sleep leadership

As part of the research, US Army military leaders used a set of sleep leadership behaviours designed to focus on improving the sleep of soldiers involved in peacekeeping and combat deployments.

Leaders discussed and modelled good sleep behaviours, from instructing soldiers to get extra sleep to asking soldiers about their sleep or trying to improve the physical sleeping environment.

Dr Adler, who has worked with the US Army for 24 years, says the studies showed leadership specifically focused on sleep was associated with better outcomes above and beyond general leadership.

“It looks like when the leadership team demonstrates that sleep matters – that it’s a priority and should be taken seriously, soldiers benefit,” she says.

“We know we can’t always say simply ‘get good sleep’. Sometimes it’s just not going to be possible because of a particular mission, so leaders have to be able to plan around that and set the service members up for success by getting them to bank sleep ahead of time and allowing them adequate time for recovery.”

Wider implications  

While WRAIR researchers will go on to examine whether sleep leadership training improves health outcomes for soldiers, they believe leadership training that focuses on specific health areas has merit for improved psychological, physical and organisational outcomes.

WRAIR is also investigating other targeted leadership skills, such as stress leadership. It’s found these specific leadership skills are associated with fewer PTSD symptoms in soldiers on a combat deployment.

These findings about leadership are not just relevant for the military.

Dr Adler says targeted health leadership is a practical approach that other high-risk occupations and a range of organisations can embrace.

“It’s not going to account for all the performance or the wellbeing but if it accounts for even a little bit over and above generally having good leadership, then leaders can be empowered and service members can benefit.”