If firefighting is the new norm

Having spent many years working in the NHS, I am now on the outside looking in. On a number of recent occasions, as I work with health care staff, the term firefighting has cropped up. This seems to be an increasingly used metaphor for people feeling the heat coming from different directions and, at times, feeling uncertain which fire to tackle first.


Whilst this firefighting mode of working can seem very productive, in that problems arise and are dealt with, sticking with the metaphor, it does beg the questions – what happens when the water runs dry (when resilience is at a low ebb and you lack the internal and external resources to move forward), when the smoke clouds your vision (when it is had to see a clear future) when it seems too much of a struggle to keep going as the fires keep coming, at such a pace that you never get to stand back and contemplate the bigger question? What would it take to stop the fires starting in the first place?

The first step to answering this question, has to be asking it in the first place, shifting out of the relentless firefighting, with a consideration that life could be different. This prompts me to think of the Stages of Change Model first proposed by Prochaska and Di Clemente back in 1977. This model, often used in clinical work, and sometimes in organisational development notes a number of stages of change:

  • Pre-contemplation – where the person is stuck with their problem and not aware of or contemplating the possibility of change. Where you keep turning up with you firefighting suit on and spend all of you time tackling one fire after another.
  • Contemplation – where the person recognizes that change is possible and is actively considering this. Where you take that first step by taking a step back and asking yourself – Is it possible that I can stop the fires starting, and how would life be different without the fires?
  • Preparation – where the person is getting ready to take action, in doing so, taking the first small steps to changing. Where you give yourself (and others) time to think and to come up with a plan for fire prevention.
  • Action – Taking action to change things in a way which reduces the problems. Implementing your plan for fire safety
  • Maintenance ­– Sustaining the action over a period of time (6 months), to maintain the change. Ensuring that once you have put the fire out, that you can keep it out through managing the short and long-term fire risks. This will require a good understanding of the fire risks and the need to be proactive to the fires from starting.

Inevitably, we will all have our fires in life, but if we get to a point when the fires keep coming and we find ourselves doing nothing but firefighting, it can be helpful to take a step back and consider what we could do differently to reduce the fire risk.

Amanda Clark – Senior Consultant, The Wellbeing Collective.


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