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Sleep Deprivation’s Impact on Safety with Ahna De Vena

Sleep Deprivation's Impact on Safety

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Having trouble sleeping or not getting enough sleep? Sleep deprivation and poor sleep quality can affect judgment and mental health, potentially increase the risk of accidents or injuries, and have a negative impact on safety and job performance. In this episode, Ahna shares the importance of quality sleep to improve workplace safety and energize your team. Adequate and quality sleep is a must to keep ourselves and those around us safe. Tune in to learn how you can begin the journey of prioritizing restorative sleep!

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Real leaders leave a legacy. They capture the hearts and minds of their teams. Their origin story puts the safety and well-being of their people first. Great companies, ubiquitously have safe yet productive operations. For those companies, safety is an investment, not a cost. For the C-suite, it’s a real topic of daily focus. This is The Safety Guru with your host Eric Michrowski, a globally recognized ops and safety guru, public speaker, and author. Are you ready to leave a safety legacy? Your legacy success story begins now.

Hi, and welcome to the Safety Guru. Today I’m very excited to have with me, Ahna De Vena. She’s a sleep expert and consultant, has been in this space for well over 20 years, and has worked across many different industries as well as in her not-for-profit work. And the quote on our website that really caught my attention, was from sleepless to sleep, superstar. Anna, welcome to the show. A really important topic to talk about is sleep tiredness has so many impacts on safety and well-being so maybe why don’t you start out by sharing a little bit about your journey in the sleep space and we’ll take it from there?

It’s great to be here, thank you for having me. I would say that my journey began as a sleepless teenager in my early 20s as a result of lack of sleep for over eleven years I had a breakdown mental and physical and ended up collapsing in public I was taken to hospital and diagnosed with some quiet serious autoimmune conditions, and I did a big review of my life and realized things needed to change. When I was offered meds and told I’d have to take them for the rest of my life I said no and decided that I really wanted to learn how to recover from the sleeplessness that I had endured and just live a really healthy life because I could still remember back to when I was younger and was able to sleep very well and I just knew that I could get back there. And so, I changed course and studied natural medicine mainly for my own knowledge and my own recovery. And after applying that for a few years I fully recovered and then decided I really wanted to help others with this issue where there was very little help at that time. And so, I started in schools because for me when I looked back I thought wow, we’re meant to spend one-third of our lives asleep and yet I didn’t receive any sleep education and that’s the primary reason I got into such difficulty. And so, I decided I wanted to be part of changing that in the world. And I began working with kids and teenagers first, which I did for years, and then adults asked me if I could run courses for them, and then I started working with one-on-one clients more and more and very successful private practices throughout the world. So, I’ve lived in quite a few different places. And essentially the work that I do now for groups, I do still work with people one on one, and I’ve got some products and then I work with groups is really a distillation of all the work I’ve done with individuals over the past 20 odd years. And it’s just very takeaway orientated so people can elicit change immediately. And that’s what I’m about. I can have a five-minute conversation with someone at the grocery store and just tune in and give them that little bit of knowledge they need to make a shift. And so, one of my biggest messages is we all have a natural ability to sleep well. When we can tap into that and support that, then we can shift so much and literally change our entire life. Because when we change our sleep, we change our health, we change our outlook, we change our relationships, our productivity, everything. And so that’s, for me, a very important message for people to get. But it’s not rocket science. But we’re very much out of sync now. We’re in a global sleep loss epidemic. It’s worth every year. So, we really need to be focusing on this.

Definitely. We hear more and more about the impact of sleep. And when we think about in the safety space, there are a lot of safety implications if you’ve got some sleep deficit. I’m thinking also about a lot of the work that people are doing that has high risk and involves shifts, which also has its own impact on sleep and there’s also an impact on executives. Can you maybe share a little bit about the importance of sleep and how we can impact safety, performance, and culture overall?

Well, I think one of the easiest ways to look at it is that when we lose sleep when we don’t get the amount of sleep we need, we’re essentially acting in the same way as when we’re drunk. And so, we have very slow reflexes. Our brain doesn’t make good decisions. All our executive functions are impaired. And we become dysfunctional on so many levels. So being tired, in a way, isn’t the worst thing. It’s really our ability to respond, to recognize where we are fully and what’s needed from us on all levels. So, if you’re operating machinery when I lived in New Zealand, I lived at a port in Nelson and I worked with a lot of men who worked at the port and there were accidents because they couldn’t respond, or they were driving machinery and didn’t drive the machinery well enough. I had one guy who was in charge of a large room full of machinery, and he said to me when he came to me for help, he said, someone almost died a few weeks ago. No, because I was so fatigued I couldn’t see how dangerous the situation was.

And I was supposed to be overseeing all the workings in this room, I think on every level from the person operating the machinery to the people overseeing any kind of environment where there’s dangerous equipment being run. There are a lot of risks and then there are risks, say, for the CEO running a company who can’t keep that long-term vision and perspective when he’s making decisions today. And McKinsey did a study involving 1900 individuals across 91 companies and they found that sleep-deprived brains lose the ability to make accurate judgments which then leads to irrational and unjustified claims and I’m quoting here, such as I don’t need sleep, I’m doing fine with just a few hours of sleep. And so, what happens is the brain is so dysfunctional that the sleepless person can’t even realize they’re sleep deprived, and I think their lives are one of the greatest dangers of sleep deprivation.

Interesting, and the other element is if I think about a lot of higher-risk roles, there are a lot of shifts. People maybe are working through the night, maybe they’re alternating from day shifts to night shifts. How does that impact somebody’s ability to rest and to really recover through sleep?

So, shift workers really have the worst end of the stick in many ways. Matthew Walker talks about it a fair bit. They’re at much higher risk of dying than anyone because their body clock and their brains are just so scrambled, you could say. And I have worked with many shift workers, and I’m appalled at the lack of consideration for basic human needs. Honestly, I’m shocked. And then people like nurses and doctors who are performing surgeries or procedures that are potentially life-threatening and having to make decisions that really impact people and they do not have the cognitive ability and even the physical coordination to be able to function properly. To me, this is one of the most kinds of disappointing and astounding aspects of society really, that we’re not protecting people more and particularly shift workers. Like there are very simple things that they could do for shift workers, which I know quite a few companies are starting to do now. But keeping the same shift for a week rather than doing three different shifts in a week allows the body to at least get some rest in a rhythmical manner. Whereas if you’re doing three different kinds of shifts in a week, it’s almost impossible to get the rest that you need to function properly.

But if you are diligent and you are very careful about how you manage the time your downtime, then you can at least get deep rest. And I think that deep rest isn’t respected enough, and people think if I’m not asleep then it’s a waste of time. But, if we know and train ourselves to rest deeply, that can then turn into sleep. But deep rest is extremely valuable. Back to your question. Shift workers need to learn the skills needed to switch off quickly more than anyone else on the planet. They really need that because their downtime is so precious and so they don’t have the luxury of hours of agitation that they can’t they just don’t have it. They’ve got to be back at work in X number of hours. So, they need to understand how to support their bodies down out of high stress, which is where everybody, and when I say everybody is I mean our bodies go into very high stress and high inflammation when we’re sleep deprived. So, it’s just so critical that shift workers know how to bring that inflammation down and how to bring the stress hormones down and then come into a state of deep rest where sleep is possible.

And you’ve got some other elements that are also mixing into it. For example, maybe their rest time is when the sun starts coming up and all the lights are up, and activity noise is higher because that’s when most people are active. So, you’ve got all sorts of things I’m even thinking about airline crews that are flying all sorts of different hours’ time zones. Jet lag all these pieces really require they mentioned some degree of awareness training in terms of tactics and then.

Carry a kit with them where they can make a room they can rest in because if we just go willy-nilly without being prepared then we could lose that time that we could be sleeping. Where are a pair of earplugs, an eye mask, and some tape? Tape is something that I tell everyone who’s sleeping in hotel rooms or unfamiliar places that they should take some black tape. It doesn’t leave marks on things. So, they can black out the room or cover over bright light shining down on them or out of the wall. Yeah. So just those three things can make a massive difference when you’re traveling and then also knowing how to manage time zones and how to prepare for travel but obviously, that’s a bit different. But although shift workers sometimes are traveling over time zone fly and fly out people.

So, it gets a good segue into getting into a little bit of the elements that an organization can do in teams of bringing sleep as part of a wellness or safety program. What are some of the best practices that you’ve seen in this space?

I think that the first thing that needs to be acknowledged is that sleep and work aren’t separate. I think for too long companies have thought of sleep as something outside of any realm that they need to address which, having worked with thousands of people the impact that work has on someone’s sleep. I’ve seen first-hand the number of people who can’t get to sleep who lie there thinking, worrying, or problem-solving in the middle of the night for their job because they’re so committed or they’re so stressed or they’re just so impacted by their work or inspired. I’ve had quite a lot of clients who are just overly inspired to the point where they can’t sleep. So, it’s not always a negative.

Sure.

So, I think companies need to acknowledge that sleep is impacted by work, and work is impacted by sleep length and quality hugely. If their employees are turning up tired, it’s costing them in many ways. And Deloitte Access Economics did a study combined with the Australian Sleep Foundation and the final report was aptly named Asleep on the Job. And they quantified the cost of insufficient sleep in Australia, and this was in 2016 to 2017 and just the productivity loss of productivity costs Australia 18 billion a year. So that’s huge. So, if we think about it, what sleeplessness is costing us professionally and personally, it’s just hard to quantify really, because if you’re living your days feeling exhausted, unable to be present, afraid of making a mistake, or even just making mistakes that have a serious impact, then that’s not really living. So, I think there needs to be a shift in how people view sleep, and any company that wants to help their employees well then needs to come right up to the top of priorities. Because traditionally diet and exercise and weight loss are areas that wellness programs have covered, and sleep has a massive impact on all three of those areas.

If you don’t get sufficient sleep, your diet just goes out the window. You actually don’t have control over what you eat because all the peptides that control appetite are just completely thrown, and you put on weight, and exercise can be detrimental. When we haven’t had sufficient sleep, if we do it in a way that elevates our stress, for instance, or if we do it at the wrong time of day, or it just doesn’t get done at all because we’re so tired, sleep needs to be the foundation of a wellness program. That’s my opinion after so many years working in this industry and its time and I feel that people are starting to wake up to this fact. I’m very grateful for Matthew Walker who’s written the fantastic book Why We Sleep. That’s a great read for anyone because we all sleep. I just want a little warning there for people who read it to be aware that you might become absolutely terrified of not getting enough sleep when you read it because he goes into all the nitty-gritty of what happens to our bodies and our minds when we don’t get the sleep we need.

Definitely, something to read to provoke thinking in that space.

This episode of the Safety Guru podcast is brought to you by Propulo Consulting, the leading safety, and safety culture advisory firm. Whether you are looking to assess your safety culture, develop strategies to level up your safety performance, introduce human performance capabilities, re-energize your BBS program, enhance supervisory safety capabilities, or introduce unique safety leadership training and talent solutions. Propulo has you covered. Visit us at propolo.com.

In a wellness program. It sounds like there are elements around teaching people the importance of sleep. Correct me if I’m wrong, but also have some strategies around how to get better sleep and maybe recognize signs of fatigue. Are those the types of themes that typically are covered?

Yes. I think that people need to understand why sleep is important and not just getting sufficient sleep, but sufficient quality sleep. There’s too much emphasis put on the length of sleep we’re getting and not enough at all on the quality of sleep we’re getting. And if we flip that around and focus on getting quality sleep then we will naturally get the length of sleep we need. And that’s something people need to become more aware of you can sleep seven to 8 hours and still wake up tired. In fact, when I do my pre-course survey, about 60% of participants report that they were getting around 7 hours of sleep but still waking up tired. And so, this is part of the epidemic that we’re now in that people might be in bed for that time, perhaps asleep, but the amount of quality sleep they’re getting, the amount of deep sleep they’re getting is way lower than what they need to truly rejuvenate while they’re sleeping.

Interesting. It makes me think that there’s also a need for awareness at the boardroom level in terms of decision-making because there are impacts that the organization creates that have an impact on safety around. We talked about before shifts and shift patterns. The other thing that comes to mind is overtime, which can be a delicate balance because sometimes overtime can be very high remuneration for the employee, and they see it as an encroachment. But if you’re working 18 hours a day or 24 hours a day and getting minimal rest and recovery, it strikes me that in high-risk role, that’s incredibly dangerous actually probably in any role, not just in a high-risk role.

Yes, it is. And I’ve seen a lot of people compromising their health and their well-being and their capacity to perform at an optimum level, taking shifts, doing overtime, or just saying yes because they’re afraid of losing their job. If they say no, that’s something that happens. There’s bullying. People know that they shouldn’t take it, but they’re afraid to say no or they’re afraid not to do it for fear of losing their job. So, in terms of a company culture that needs to be interwoven so that people aren’t afraid, that people are able to really take stock of how they are and make a decision that reflects their ability, not oh God, I better say yes because otherwise, my job is at risk. Sure, that kind of company culture is beyond toxic. That kind of thing just so needs to change.

And I’ve seen it even at a crew level. So, there’s corporate culture and then there can also be team dynamics that create that need to be in check where somebody’s like just do the extra or just push a little bit harder or something like that, that can also be toxic. 

Yeah. And if you’ve got a leader of your team who’s doing over many extra hours and kind of creating this we don’t need sleep, I don’t need sleep. So, you shouldn’t need sleep, what’s wrong with you? Type thing wearing a badge almost of being a hero for operating on very little sleep. That’s extremely dangerous. And just on that note, there is a small percentage of the population, 3% of the population have a gene that makes it possible for them to function normally on 6 hours of sleep. And so, if you’ve got them as a team leader, if you got one of them as a team leader, that’s a scary position to be in because then you start trying to exist on the same amount of sleep as one of these people.

Sure.

If you look at burnout now and the prevalence of burnout now compared to even just ten years ago, it’s so much more prevalent. And I think since covert our stress levels are so much higher and there is a direct link to high stress and lack of sleep and those they feed each other. So generally, lack of sleep will start occurring due to some kind of height and stress. And then if we don’t have the skills and the ability to get out of that cycle, then one just feeds the other. Lack of sleep feeds the high stress. The high stress leads to more lack of sleep and then it just goes on and on and-on-and people feel they can’t get out, but they also just start to think of it as normal. And that’s something I try to tell people. It’s not normal. Even though it feels normal, even though you think you don’t have a problem, there actually is an issue here that needs addressing. And so that’s one of the hardest things to get people to recognize there is a problem and it needs addressing.

And I think that’s where the need for as well the organization to bring this at the forefront from a safety standpoint, from a wellness standpoint becomes really important.

Yes.

So let’s pivot to some of the strategies to improve sleep. You shared one around when you’re traveling to have some tape to be able to make sure the room is dark. What are some of the strategies that you teach in your programs to help somebody become a better master at sleep?

Well, the first thing is to see sleep as a must-have instead of a nice-to-have. So, I think people don’t have enough of a healthy perspective on how important quality sleep is. And I would say that the first thing needs to be an acknowledgment of how important it is because once you have that, then you can start connecting with why you want to get great sleep.

Sure.

And of course, those two things are kind of interconnected. But unless we have a strong connection to why. We want to get great sleep. Win the battle with the creature of habit that makes us do the same thing over and over and over again and continue getting mediocre or poor sleep already. Is anyone listening to this? The creature of habit inside you is standing on guard and saying. None of this stuff is going to work for me. Whatever she says, it’s not going to work, or I don’t want to do that even before I speak. And so, you’ve got to be aware that this battle has already started and will be there for a month. As you incorporate new patterns of behavior, even a new mindset, you have to battle. And in order to begin to win that battle, you’ve got to have a why. And I say to people, how do you want to feel when you wake up in the morning? And how do you want to feel as you engage with the people in your life, the people you love, how you are able to perform at work and how you’re able to contribute in the world?

How do you want to feel? And so, when you can get in touch with that and then come to a place of saying, you know what? I want to be fully alive. I want my brain to work as well as it can work. I want super brain powers and I want endless energy. And I want the ability to be patient and to be able to listen and to be able to communicate clearly, to be able to keep a long-term perspective. When I’m making decisions for myself, for my family, for my colleagues, and for my company, we have to really have a strong why in order to make any changes. So that would be my first suggestion. The second suggestion is around your relationship with light. We have a segment of our brain called the super charismatic nucleus. And this part of our brain actually regulates our sleep-wake cycle. And the main environmental cues that trigger the sleep-wake cycle are light and temperature. And so, when we are exposed to full spectrum light, that signal from the environment is read through brain cells that are in our eyes called Retinal ganglion cells. And those brain cells in our eyes send a signal to the super charismatic nucleus and say, hey, it’s time to wake up.

And then the super charismatic nucleus says to the adrenal cortex, start making cortisol. Cortisol isn’t just a stress hormone, it’s an energy hormone. And also, is a regulating hormone. It’s an activating hormone. It’s actually very good for us in the white quantities at the right time. So, we need this signal of light. We also need to increase our body temperature to switch on in the morning and then in the evening, we need the signal of darkness, which is also read by these retinal ganglion cells. And these signals are sent to the SCN, okay, stop making cortisol and start making melatonin. Darkness is the best sleeping pill. I’m going to repeat that. Darkness is the best and really the only sleeping pill. We should use long-term signals to our bodies to start making the hormones that we need to get good quality sleep. And this is true for people of all ages and children. All humans need darkness and then coolness the opposite to morning coolness. The body needs to cool down in order to sleep well. So overheated rooms or overheated beds are just going to make you frustrated, and your body won’t be able to fall asleep.

So, if everyone follows this advice, everyone’s quality and length of sleep would improve. And it’s simple, but it’s tricky because we’re living in a time where our evenings are polluted by artificial light. Now, the amount of sleep we’ve gotten globally has declined since artificial light started polluting our evenings. In 1942, the average sleep adults got on the planet was 7.9 hours a night. Now it’s 6.5 and decreasing every year. The last time that was measured was actually discovered. So, in the surveys, I’m doing, my estimate is it’s down to six already as an average. And we need 7.5 to 9 hours, depending on who we are, the average is around eight. To be well mentally and physically, children and teenagers need much more than that. 90% of teenagers are sleep deprived. This is a problem that is yet to be acknowledged and yet to be addressed. I plan on addressing it in the next few years with my sleep kit for teens. I’ve already got a sleep kit for kids. But yeah, everything I’m saying applies to people of all ages.

Interesting, these are all techniques that people can easily implement, and I think it also links back to what you’re talking about. The tip when you’re traveling is to make sure you’ve got a dark environment, is there something as well about when you’re talking about artificial light? People are watching TV more and more using their computers, which from everything I’ve read, stimulates and also counteracts what we’re trying to do in the hours before sleep.

Yeah, so as I said when we get the opposite cue to what the body needs, so the body needs darkness. And when we have this very bright light being read by these brain cells in our eyes, these retinal ganglion cells, they’re getting the opposite signal to what they need. And so, it confuses everything, and it inhibits the production of melatonin, which melatonin should start being produced quite a while before we go to sleep. Whereas people are taking their phones to bed, right, and they’re sending this light signal. And so, one of the things people say to me when they come to me for help, they say, I just don’t get tired at night. I just don’t get tired. I don’t feel sleepy. I said, well, what are you doing? And so, it’s always something that involves light, whether it’s a screen, generally, it’s a screen. But we need to understand what’s happening physiologically. Not just our screens aren’t good for us, but understand that when you’re doing that, but understand that when you’re doing that, that you are confusing your body and messing with your body chemistry. And so, when you do eventually get to sleep, it’s light sleep.

And yes, there are some things you can do. You can wear good quality blue light-blocking glasses. One of the things that I suggest is setting an electronic sundown time and having that be something that everyone in the house adheres to so that parents are setting an example. So, you have a box, and all the phones get put into the box. Anyone letting a teenager or child take their phone or device into their bedroom, yeah, it’s one of the most disastrous and unloving things that a parent can do. That sounds very judgmental, but it’s true because it’s interrupting their development at such a deep level. And it’s just like sending an alcoholic into a room with a bottle of scotch. They don’t have control and they’re severely addicted, so they’ll tell you they’re not on it, but I can tell you they are interesting.

So, you do a lot of programs for organizations. You coach, work, and people with people one on one. If somebody is interested in learning more, how can they get in touch with you?

Great. So, through my website. Sleep well and thrive. Or you can just contact me through LinkedIn Ahna De Vena. They’re the two best places to get in touch with me. And you can read about my corporate programs on my website. And there are lots of testimonials from different companies that have worked with me, and there’s lots of information there.

Excellent. Thank you very much for joining me today. I think it’s an important topic and definitely one that’s been top of mind with the pandemic. Lots of articles have talked about this, but I think it’s important for organizations to, as you propose, really look at it seriously in terms of their wellness programs, their safety programs, looking at their decision-making, how different decisions around shifts, around overtime, can impact restful sleep, but also provide tools for team members around this. So, thank you so much for coming to share your thoughts on this.

My pleasure. Thank you for having me.

Thank you for listening to the Safety Guru on C-suite Radio. Leave a legacy. Distinguish yourself from the path. Grow your success. Capture the hearts and minds of your teams. Elevate your safety. Like every successful athlete, top leaders continuously invest in their safety leadership with an expert coach to boost safety performance. Begin your journey at execsafetycoach.com. Come back in two weeks for the next episode with your host, Eric Michrowski. This podcast is powered by Propulo Consulting.

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ABOUT THE GUEST

Ahna De Vena has been a pioneer in the sleep-improvement field for 20+ years. She has extensive experience working with individuals and organisations throughout the world and her corporate program is changing thousands of lives every year. Ahna has developed a unique approach to sleep improvement and stress reduction from observation in her clinical practice and created effective products including a Sleep Cd that was featured on Qantas inflight entertainment for 4 years and a Sleep Kit for Kids that has already helped thousands of kids and families throughout Australia. She’s also the founder of the Sleep & Dream Foundation—a charity that supports children and families who’ve experienced trauma to sleep well and heal.

You can learn more about Ahna’s corporate sleep improvement program or 1:1 sleep recovery package by visiting her website: www.sleepwellandthrive.com or by emailing her directly: [email protected]

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Levelling Up Safety by Embracing Total Wellness at Denver Fire Department with Manuel Almaguer

Levelling up safety by embracing total wellness at Denver fire department

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“At that time, we had focused so much on line of duty deaths, but what we did not know is that suicides were starting to outpace line of duty deaths in the fire service.” Manuel Almaguer remembers back to 2013 when the Denver Fire Department began to roll out training with an intentional focus on discussing stressors, risk factors, and ways to take care of themselves and each other in public safety. Tune in as Manuel discusses steps the Denver Fire Department has implemented through the years to beat the stigma, build trust through vulnerability, and prioritize peer support to embrace total wellness throughout the fire department.

READ THIS EPISODE

Real leaders leave a legacy. They capture the hearts and minds of their teams. Their origin story puts the safety and wellbeing of their people first. Great companies ubiquitously have safe yet productive operations. For those companies, safety is an investment, not a cost. For the C-Suite, it’s a real topic of daily focus. This is The Safety Guru with your host, Eric Michrowski, a globally recognized ops and safety guru, public speaker and author. Are you ready to leave a safety legacy? Your legacy success story begins now.

Hi, and welcome to the Safety Guru. Today I’m very excited to have with me Manuel Almaguer. He’s the assistant Chief with the Denver Fire, 20-year veteran champion of mental health and we’re here to talk about some incredibly powerful actions that he’s taken. He’s driven within Denver Fire to bring the topic of mental health to the forefront. So many really excited to have you with me today.

Hey. Good morning, Eric. It’s my pleasure and looking forward to this conversation for quite some time. Thank you.

Excellent. So many your story has been shared in many different forms that I’ve heard. In terms of the work you’ve done in Denver Fire, maybe let’s start a little bit about what got you inspired to do some very powerful things which we’ll get to very soon around mental health within Denver Fire.

That’s great. It’s a great intro. And my background before I came into Denver Fire Department was in psychiatric settings. So, I was a psychiatric registered nurse and I worked in institutional settings with the developmentally disabled as well as those with some severe mental illness concerns that would require the institutional setting. So, I’d worked in that setting for eleven years and then I went into the career change with Denver Fire and really thought, okay, I pretty much have seen what I’m going to see in life and there’s really nothing that’s going to be shocking to me or something that’s going to as I thought would be traumatic. So, this was in the year 2000 and then I started to see trends and people that I had worked with and people who had retired from the fire service and taking their own lives. But where it really impacted me, and a few others was in 2013 when there was a suicide of one of our respected captains in the Democratic Department and just a man that many of us kind of looked up to as a mentor. And you have to keep this perspective when you come into public safety and specifically the fire service and you always think of somebody who’s stoic, somebody who doesn’t have any issues personally, somebody who’s just kind of that man’s, man, firefighter, firefighter.

He just never really looked deep into the layer of anything that could be preoccupying them in any way. So, this individual took their life in 2013 and it crippled a handful of us. And at the time it was with an employee group called Firefighters Incorporated for Racial Equality and maybe on the executive board worked with this individual in the firehouse. So, what was so interesting about this is that at that time, we had just started to get at the forefront of suicide in the fire service. And at that time, Denver fire collaborated with the National Pawn Firefighters Foundation. We were focusing on the Life Safety Initiative, which is mental health. So, we started to roll out some training. It was very basic training. It was called stress first aid. So, at that time was the very first introduction that I could recall in the fire service, where we started talking about stressors risk factors and ways to take care of yourself and each other. But we were influenced in all of this. We were just trying to get the message out. Well, while we were doing this, right under our nose is when the suicide of the captain occurred.

So, at that time, we knew we had to do something that had a little bit more teeth to it, that was more sustainable, and actually would capture the attention of the importance of this pattern that was starting to go on in the fire service. Because at that time, we had focused so much online of duty deaths, but what we did not know is that suicides were starting to outpace line of duty deaths in the fire service, but we never even so at the time, a task force was formed with FRE. There’s about three to five of us that says, okay, let’s go out and see what we can do. We’ve had enough and we were broken. Eric we really did not know what we were going to get into, but we knew we needed to do something. And so, what we did is the firefighter mentality. We picked up our bootstraps, we marched forward and said you were not going to take no for an answer. But we really didn’t have an idea. We started to look at resources in the state of Colorado, city of Denver, and at that time, we were knocked on many doors.

We’re here, we’re men. We lost somebody very close to us. We have a lot of the same DNA running through our bodies. We’re high-risk factors. We’re at a high stress job. And people are like, yeah, that’s great. That’s a tough culture, tough stigma. Let us know if you have somebody that’d be willing to work with you. It was to us as like, boy, we were just kind of like, whoa, I guess we are kind of in our own little category of high-risk occupations. Well, then what happened at the time is I just happened to be looking on YouTube and I saw there was a local department of the region down to the south of Denver that had put together this video called Dealing with the Aftermath of Suicide. So, I watched it very captivated, like, wow, this is what we’re trying to get into.

Sure.

I looked at the credits, and in the credits was Dr. Sally Spencer Thomas. And I looked at, wait a minute here. She’s down the street from us. So, we made contact with her. About three of us went in there to talk to her, and immediately we knew we were in the right hand. She almost was, like, waiting for us. And at that time, she was recognizing this pattern and trend that was going on amongst working agents, specifically in the public safety industry as well as the construction industry. So, what we did at that time was we collaborated with Sally, and we started at a very, very we had a strategy to go and get some focus groups. And so, what we did is we got members from all ranks, probably about ten to 15 members of the Denver fire department of all ranks. We just went into a room, and we just started talking about what we were all going through and what was so glaring and all that. And I knew everybody in this room, and I thought I had a pretty good idea of who they were as men and as women and as firefighters.

The out is I really had no idea what they were going through. And they were raw. They were tough conversations and very real and eye-opening dialogue. And we had felt that the common thread we had all had been we were all stressed. We take home our work, and we knew we had a system that needed more resources. Keep in mind, at the time when I came on the Denver fire department in the year 2000, we had a city policy that had kind of made its way into our department policies. And it basically was, if you’re experiencing a crisis or if you need mental health resources, call this number.

Sure.

And it was office of employee assistance as a paragraph, probably that big, and every city employee, this was the avenue for resources. So, at the time I thought, well, I don’t want to minimize what anybody in a city employee is going through, but I felt pretty confident that somebody in the library or somebody in parks and rec wasn’t dealing with the same stressors. And that’s me.

I think that’s probably a fair assumption.

And so those are the types of things we knew we had to start having in place in order to have options for our members. Because, you know, the more options you have, the better choices you’re going to make, and there are resources that are better suited for you and your own individual needs. But at that time, our most used resource was our care support team, and that is members of the Democratic department through specialized training. And that is what we had. It was most widely used. We had a department of psychologist. But if you did not feel comfortable with those two resources, then all you had was just the city OOE EAP employee assistance program. So, what we did with that focus group is we looked at a strength and needs assessment. What are the strengths of the fire service? What are the strengths of the Denver fire department? We knew the strengths are we’re a family, we take care of each other. We all have the risk factors that we all can pretty much unspoken language know that, okay, this person, he or she is going through probably the same challenges that I’m going through.

We knew that the strengths are with the firefighter mentality. Give us a task, we’ll take care of it. And the weaknesses we have were lack of resources, lack of trust. Lack of trust meaning that we didn’t feel confident that we could come forward with vulnerability. It was a weakness at the time, and we felt that we didn’t have trust and there would be no labeling the stigma attached. And I want to promote in the fire service well if I come forward and I start talking about the course I’ve taken in my career with dealing with my mental health challenges or concerns, does this impact me where I go on my future? He felt very, very leery about crossing the boundaries of being leaders in the fire service and conveying vulnerability to our peers. And then our peers felt I don’t trust leadership because they’re going to go and use this against me in my career. All these obstacles, we just kind of hashed them all out. And so, we also had done a survey and got to keep in mind a survey in public safety. We probably have 2% to 5% Ops participation. We put this survey and we asked what do I think about mental illness?

What do I think my peer thinks about mental illness? What do I think leadership thinks about mental illness? Can I name five risk factors, somebody who may be experiencing a crisis? Can I list five resources that are available to me and to my peers? We had about a 20% participation rate in the fire service and to many in a company organization, I might not see my calaba. To us it was huge. And we knew at the time that people want to be heard and people are struggling. So, we found out some very alarming data from that. People couldn’t even name resources other than the EAP. And so, with that, we put together a training and said, okay, we’re going to go through this model called the working minds model. We’re going to train the trainer because we knew in the fire service public safety, you bring in an outside speaker to tell you, you know, this is what you’re going through. You automatically get suspicion. You’re going to get the fear of conspiracy. So, we knew in order for it to be effective, it had to be biased for us and we had to put people who’ve actually walked this path.

We’re in positions of leadership and basically say, okay, this is what we’re dealing with. That was the first challenge. The second challenge is we knew we could not go in there and just say, we’re going to talk about mental health and resiliency. Sure, you’re probably going to get callings that day. You’re probably going to get people who have some other thing they want, training they got to take care of. But we knew we couldn’t do that. So right at that time in the fire service, we always are championing physical health. Cancer is high amongst firefighters, heart attacks amongst firefighters and first responders. So, we knew we had to capitalize on that and morph it together, what we call the total wellness. So, let’s talk about what we’re going to take care of our physical health, checkups physicals body composition analysis, propensity for injury, and then let’s start talking about our minds, what’s going on here? As below, as above, so below, that’s kind of our approach. So, we coupled it all together. We called it total wellness and we got great buying. And it was something that we felt that became a model that continued to be used in corporate America.

But it was something, like I said, if I look back on it and it was probably the best thing that we could have done, but there’s was something missing. We had just started to capture data and at that time the data was alarming because like I mentioned before, you think of firefighters, you think of the worst possible thing that could happen is a line of duty death. But when we start talking about working age, men, fire service, the risk factors we all bring in, we’re risktakers by nature. We’re around death all the time. We know if we are in a crisis. We know the mechanisms to take our own life. And we had captured the attention of the data of the people we were presenting to on the organization. But we knew in order to get that knockout punch to really deliver the message. At the time, Dr. Sally says, let’s get about five people in leadership positions. Let’s put together a video. And I want you to talk about moments in your career when you are vulnerable, maybe going through a difficult time, have soft treatment, and you are now triumphant, if you mind.

The ten of us that are going through this, we’re like, we’re very passionate. We know what needs to be done. But all ten of us are like, I don’t know anybody like that, do you? We’re kind of looking around the room. In reality, we were part of our own story. This is part of our own healing. And those of us who were deeply impacted by the suicide of the captain, I look back on it and going through this was part of the best thing we could have done for ourselves because we were able to lay our hearts on the table, be open be vulnerable. So, once we got together, a group of us that basically talked about seeking help, advocating for mental health and resilience building, which is what captured the attention of the members of the department of everything we did. And it was all great. People said, you know what, I never knew that you were going through this, and I admire you so much for your courage and vulnerability and coming forward and that we were able to build on. And I firmly believed, unfortunately, we had a line of duty death about a year and a half later, and this was a firefighter who had fallen through a roof and had lost his life two weeks later.

Well, because we had already started to build those skills of resiliency, crisis intervention, suicide prevention, we were able to teach the entire department on grief and loss. And I firmly would never have been able to broach that topic if we hadn’t already built that trust. And so that is kind of the story in a nutshell on how Denver Fire Department began to morph into championing mental health, coming up with more programs, recognize the value of resource building internally through peer support. Department psychologists were able to come up with a chaplain service for people who are more inclined to have spiritual intervention for mental health. And we were able to collaborate with many, many agencies and suicide prevention organizations and champions. But that’s how it all began.

I think the story is incredibly powerful. A couple of things that really hit home for me was the importance of peer support. And I think the message you shared around without trying to minimize the challenges that other groups may go through. EAP and many organizations that actually remember having the conversation earlier this week is the EP group that you’ve got prepared to address themes. Do they understand what you’re going through saying in the fire department or whether it’s law enforcement without its construction, whatever industry that you’re in because it seems maybe different construction, sometimes you could be away for six weeks or you might be flying to see your family for a day, which could create new stressors and differences. So, I think the peer support piece is something I’m hugely in favor of. I think it’s incredibly important. I love how you adapted things; you made it for the fire department, you adjusted terminology, the total wellness. I think these things are powerful because if it feels like it’s something that’s corporate that’s being pushed, people won’t use. And I think that’s incredibly powerful. And your message around vulnerability, I’ve seen it time and time again when people are comfortable, and leaders are comfortable being vulnerable.

It’s so powerful in terms of getting people to understand.

This episode of the Safety Guru podcast is brought to you by Propulo Consulting, the leading safety and safety culture advisory firm. Whether you are looking to assess your safety culture, develop strategies to level up your safety performance, introduce human performance capabilities, reenergize your BBS program, enhance supervisory safety capabilities, or introduce unique safety leadership training and talent solutions. Propulo has you covered. Visit [email protected]

That’s a great point, Eric. And this is a story I want to share with you recently. About two weeks ago, I was at a call downtown on an actual suicide of an individual who had taken their life by jumping off of a structure. And so, if that would have happened 1520 years ago, those who were part of that incident had witnessed what had happened, we would lose them because we would never address what they’re feeling now or what they may be feeling next day down the road. So, after everything was mitigated and during that time when I’m getting the company back in service, the first call I made was our purpose support director. And I said, this is what happened. These are the individuals that were on the scene. Please give them a call by the end of the day or tomorrow morning. So, to see that transition and now it’s part of our call process. First incident, I would never have even thought of that 1520 years ago. It was just something that you went home, you took it home with. If you were able to talk with members of your family or of your own internal support network, fantastic.

But if you didn’t have those, then this is carried with you, and it be accumulated through your career.

Right. And I think one of the reasons why I think your story’s powerful and obviously we’re talking mostly about safety. You’re in the public safety space, you do incredibly dangerous workday in and day out. What’s the impact of mental health and not addressing on physical safety of a team member? That because I think the two things are intertwined. We know from a physical safety standpoint, distractions, all sorts of things that can be exacerbated by mental health can have an impact in terms of my choices, my decisions, and how I stay physically safe as well.

Yeah, that’s a great question. So, as I mentioned earlier, we started to recognize the trend and pattern in line of duty death being surpassed by suicides, not just in the fire service, but in public safety. And this has continued to be the trend for almost ten years. I think the only time we had line of duty deaths that were outpacing suicide was during COVID, but we don’t see a drop off in these trends. So, the cumulative effect, if these stressors and risk factors aren’t addressed, obviously the worst-case scenario is the suicide of a member. But you can also attach it to the things that maybe we don’t consider taking it home to your loved ones. Anger, substance use. And that data we had done back in 2014, we started to see the prevalence of substance use. We started to see the prevalence of domestic issues that were going on in the home. We started to see a trend in the number of divorces in the fire service. We started to see the number of disciplines in the fire service. We started to see a number in injuries. So, all the things you can easily attribute to not taking care of yourself.

And when you look at the number of calls that the peer support receives on an annual basis, of course they’re all confidential. But we do look at the types of calls and they all are on family, substance use, anger management, feeling loss of value and a sense of purpose because of injuries. And you have to keep in mind we’re all kind of have our bread to be on the frontline, to be out there riding on the rig, to be a part of a crew. And when you have issues where you’re taking time off of work, whether for recovery, whether it’s mentally or physically, you lose that sense of value being a part of something bigger than yourself, part of a team. So those are all the things that you can attribute to not taking care of yourself. And then we were also seeing trends, and this is something that may be surprising to a few, is our retirees were taking their lives in the past two years. I probably have a handful of retirees who once they were off the department, had taken their lives. It’s a sense of possibly not having a support network of the brothers and sisters of the fire department to bounce things off and maybe not having the support network that they once had.

And I’ve seen this in other industries as well, where there’s a very strong bond connection to the mission, even in the aviation space, pilots as well, risk factors after they retire. All of that also changes the context that you’re operating within. So, is this something you’ve also extended to people that have left the fire department in terms of the peer support or not yet?

No. Well, we’ve brought it to the attention of administration. We brought it to the attention of the union. Of the union. And yes, I believe it’s part of the message that this is what we’ve seen, these are the resources available to you. But we don’t really have to touch points like we would have members who are currently in the department. But I will tell you what we did that I really felt that was a game changer for us is that I really didn’t start talking about mental health until my 15th year on the department. When I came on in the year 2000, if there was anything going on with me internally, I’d dare not say anything. And even if I was to say, hey, I’m having a bad day, I’ll be quiet kid, just move on, get on the rig. So, part of the academy process, when the new recruits come in, they are automatically just within that first 17 weeks of their training are instructed on the importance of self care, are instructed on being able to have the courage to intervene if a member or a colleague. And I use this story, and I’ve used it with the recruits.

So, in the fire service, we’re safety oriented. Everything’s about safety, of course. And when you’re on a call, all of us are responsible and have an obligation to safety. It doesn’t matter if you’re the chief. It doesn’t matter if you are the brand-new firefighter in the city. You come up on a house fire and you see a roof sagging, I ask the most junior person, the least seniority on the department, what would you do? You roll up on this. What would you do? Oh, Chief, you know what? I immediately talked to the incident commander, but there’s a safety issue right there. The roof is saying, we need to pull people off the roof without hesitation, with confidence. I said, okay, you go back to the firehouse, and you happen to walk past your officer’s room, and you see your officer with his head in his hands and he saw me. What are you going to do? They look around, I don’t know. I said, the mindset is we’re safety officers on the fire ground and in the firehouse, if somebody is in danger or there’s a concern or somebody is not themselves, just like reading smoke, we can tell when there’s turbulence.

We should be able to read each other when there’s inner turbulence, have the courage to intervene and have that dialogue. So that’s the mindset that we’re trying to have. Our entry level recruits have those skills and at least the awareness of themselves and their peers that they can start having that conversation and start moving things in that direction early in their career.

Thank you, Manny. That’s very powerful. So, Manny, thank you for sharing all these great ideas and your experience through this. If somebody wants to get in touch with you to explore your journey within Denver Fire, to explore how to leverage some of the insights you’ve had there in the organization, how can they get in touch with you?

Eric, they can contact me through my personal email. And that is [email protected]

Perfect. And I also want to thank you for coming, sharing your story, for the work that you’ve done within Denver Fire and how you brought all the teams together behind this. I think it’s a very encouraging story and a story I wish a lot of others started thinking about. How do I embark on a similar journey and ultimately as well, thank you for your service within Denver Fire and keeping people safe day in and day out. Really appreciate everything you’ve done. Thank you.

Yeah, thanks, sir.

It’s been a pleasure.

Thank you for listening to the safety guru on C-suite Radio. Leave a legacy. Distinguish yourself from the pack. Grow your success. Capture the hearts and minds of your teams elevate your safety. Like every successful athlete, top leaders continuously invest in their safety. Leadership with an expert coach to boost safety performance. Begin your journey at execsafetycoach.com. Come back in two weeks for the next episode with your host, Eric Michrowski. This podcast is powered by Propulo consulting.

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ABOUT THE GUEST

Assistant Chief, Manuel Almaguer, has been a Denver Firefighter for 22 years. Chief Almaguer has served in many roles in the Denver Fire Department. This includes Division Chief of Fire Prevention, Assistant Chief in both Training and Operations. Hazardous Materials Captain, and Lieutenant in Administration. He is a national champion of mental health and resiliency. He has spoken at The White House and Pentagon on Suicide Prevention and Men’s Health.

For more information: [email protected]

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