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The Importance of Creating Supportive Climates for Engagement and Psychological Health in High-Risk Jobs: A Career Discussion With Thomas Britt

By David Mohr, PhD
Military and Veterans Inclusion Ad Hoc Committee

Tom Britt, a professor of Psychology at Clemson University, has made many contributions to I-O psychology and applications, including understanding how managers can best support workers in challenging and stressful high-risk jobs. His work has also focused on understanding employee engagement and resilience, and the stigma associated with seeking help for mental health for work-related stress and trauma.

Dr. Britt started his contributions to the military and I-O psychology with a ROTC scholarship, which supported his education toward earning a degree in at William and Mary. He then took an educational delay where he earned a master’s degree in general psychology at Wake Forest University and then a PhD in social psychology at the University of Florida.  In 1994, he started on active duty in the Army as a captain assigned to Walter Reed Army Institute of Research as a research psychologist.  He fondly described his first assignment in Heidelberg, Germany, and being able to live in Europe for several years. 

During one of his first impactful research projects with the military, Dr. Britt studied soldiers involved in peacekeeping operations in Bosnia and Croatia.  He noted this was a particularly interesting group because they experienced a sharp incongruence in their training and current mission assignments. Soldiers were trained for combat in hostile environments, but they later found themselves needing to shift their focus and personal identity to act as peacekeepers between former warring factions. 

Dr. Britt discussed how “being in the military comes with a lot of exposure to trauma that is unavoidable.”  He studied what happens when the stressors soldiers face become too much, and they develop mental health problems.  Dr. Britt talked about challenges and stigma associated with receiving help and treatment for work-related mental health consequences.  More specifically, in one study with which he was involved, soldiers returning from a deployment received both a medical and psychological screening.  Soldiers were sent to one line for medical concerns and another line for mental health concerns; this second line was referred to as the “looney line” among soldiers. The stigma and connotation around seeking help made it challenging for those who needed help to receive mental health treatment.  This led Dr. Britt to explore approaches that could create climates to support help-seeking behaviors.

Tom discussed the flexibility of conducting research in the Army.  “You could do research you wanted to but the results had to provide commanders of the military personnel with useful feedback.”  This experience helped him focus on providing briefings to leaders recommending things they could change to reduce stressors or enhance the engagement of soldiers. Recommendations included teaching leaders how to “highlight the soldier’s contribution to the mission,” the importance of soldiers spending their work day on what they were trained for, and allowing greater job control. After leaving the Army, he joined the faculty at Clemson and continued to work with the military through grants and research projects extending his work on finding ways to create a climate where coworkers supported their fellow members in seeking help that they needed.

When asked what would you tell a leader they can do for their employees, he noted the importance of “giving employees time off to get support rather than making it difficult to take time away.” Leaders who talked with their employees about the importance of mental health and when to seek help create a supportive and healthy workplace, especially if leaders can discuss their own experiences. He emphasized the importance for leaders to providing a climate that minimizes stigma and encourages building resilience and seeking help, as individuals who experience traumatic events can be shaped by these events in different ways.

Dr. Britt discussed how this research is also applicable to civilian employees who work in high-risk occupations. He noted many parallels regarding his work with healthcare professionals, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic.  Emergency medicine clinicians are on the front lines of the pandemic and face many of the same demands and decision-making processes and exposure to trauma as members of the military.

Dr. Britt plans to continue working with military personnel and understanding the benefits of resilience and supportive climates in reducing mental health problems among military and civilian employees. He is also currently working on the revision of a college textbook on organizational psychology with Drs. Steve Jex and Cynthia Thompson.

The SIOP Military Veterans Inclusion Ad Hoc Committee will share articles in the Source throughout November as part of its efforts to increase workplace resources and their dissemination to support those in the military community (e.g., veterans, guard and reservists, military spouses) employed in civilian settings and employers of veterans.

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