—This article is raw.
Hard to read. Hard to write. Hard to admit.
Why? Because EMS looking out for each other is a no-brainer.
Or at least something we all want as a no-brainer.
Who better to look out for you than one of your own?
Who better to take care of you than your own EMS family? Who better than an EMS brother or sister?
Caring for people is what we do.
When No-Brainers Fail
The simplest way to explain EMS workplace toxicity is:
Sometimes no-brainers fail.
Sometimes families let each other down.
Sometimes families treat each other worse than they would ever consider treating a stranger.
That’s how things get toxic in Emergency Medical Services (EMS). Air medical and EMS are the best jobs in the world when everything is going well. But when things go bad, they go really bad—really fast!
EMS toxicity is hard for me to write about. It’s a subject I don’t normally write or speak about publicly. A subject I normally save for seasoned coaching students and INSIDERS.
Because toxic workplaces suck.
Toxicity, by definition, makes people sick. It’s not a topic people want to read about. And it’s not what I want to spend my time writing about.
But . . .
I’ve watched toxic EMS and air medical workplaces chase away lots of bright, talented, motivated, good people. And once they’re gone, they’re gone! These folks never return to EMS or aviation.
We all lose when this happens.
So it’s time.
Time to share warning signs of a toxic EMS workplace and what to do if you’re infected.
10 Signs Your EMS Workplace Is Toxic
#1 Trauma Drama
High drama is the norm in toxic work environments.
You may feel anxious and paranoid that your colleagues are talking about you—and with good reason.
If your co-workers crucify other team members when they’re not around, why would you think you’re the exception?
Toxic, cliquey co-workers spend their EMS down time looking for ways to spread unhappiness. They level the playing field the only way they know how—by bringing others down to their level. They make what should be friendly workplace competition seem hostile and dog-eat-dog. There’s always rumors or gossip floating around the base; misunderstanding, favoritism, and infighting.
#2 The Never-ending “Lucky You Have A Job” Announcements
If you’ve ever heard the “you’re lucky to have a job” statement from your boss, Human Resources, or even other co-workers, it’s a major red flag.
This scare tactic is a means of threatening you and your co-workers into staying in a marginalized position, and is symptomatic of an organization that thrives on bullying behavior and control.
If you’ve done everything required to work as a flight nurse, flight medic, or EMS pilot; you’re the prize, not the commodity. Don’t let anyone make you feel differently.
You should absolutely consider being thankful you have a job, . . . but lucky? No. Read my wooden spoon article for more inspiration.
#3 Major Communication Problems
A sure sign of a dysfunctional, toxic workplace is significant communication problems.
Communication problems between crew. Communication problems between departments. Communication problems with the communication center. You get the idea.
EMS sometimes aggravates this situation with displaced geography. The main hospital is at one location, satellite bases are at different locations, helicopter maintenance and resources are at still other locations. But geography is secondary. It’s not the root cause of communication issues. Lack of leadership is the cause. Click here to read more about EMS Leadership.
What matters most is how you feel about communication channels within your organization.
Do you feel like you’re left out of the loop regarding important information? Do you get little to no feedback about your performance, and when you do, it’s negative and harsh — never constructive. Can you fit your bases’ annual atta-boy and atta-girl feedback on a dinner napkin?
Does your boss encourage open communication, or punish it?
#4 Narcissistic Leaders
This is one of those proverbial chicken or egg dilemmas.
It’s not clear whether toxic leaders create toxic workplaces or toxic workplaces are magnets for toxic leaders. In either case, the two go together.
What’s a narcissist and why should you care?
Put simply, a narcissist is a person who is all about themselves. Narcissistic leaders view themselves as categorically brighter and more talented than anyone else around and therefore more deserving of special treatment. The rules for everyone else are beneath them, they think.
Narcissistic leaders are condescending. They take credit for others’ successes and manipulate others (and information) to ensure that they look good. Others don’t really matter to them.
While these leaders may appear successful for a while, over the long haul their attitudes and actions catch up with them. Trust and teamwork plummet wherever they go. They are a source of high turnover rates and eventually destroy the health of the organization.
Toxic leaders might not be at the top of an organization; they often crop in mid level management and even in front-line supervisory roles.
#5 Work Harder, Not Smarter
When you are a motivated, dedicated, professional worker, an overly bureaucratic organization is toxic.
Generating paperwork only to appease supervisors or regulatory agencies is a waste of everyone’s time. If this is happening at your base or station, your leadership is failing you. Period.
This wasted time will eventually kill your motivation and your chances for success.
Leaders in good organizations work to remove obstacles to getting work done, and provide ongoing support and encouragement. Good leaders consider it part of their job—because it is their job.
#6 No Good Deed Goes Unpunished
The “no good deed goes unpunished” mentality is a sure sign of a toxic EMS workplace.
In this type of environment, everything is punitive.
Workers learn that if they stand out for any reason—make a mistake, criticize, or make a suggestion—they get attacked and/or punished. Every action ends in punishment. This shut-up-and-keep-working environment is guaranteed to stifle any sort of creativity or innovation, and leads to ever diminishing returns.
Eventually, employees in this environment lapse into what I call “vicious compliance” mode. A sort of “I’ll do exactly what the policy states, and not a single thing more” type of compliance.
Obviously, everybody loses in this type of toxicity.
#7 Nobody Wants To Lead
EMSers are smart.
EMSers have a sixth sense when it comes to health—especially their own health. In healthy workplaces, the best employees compete for the best positions. In toxic workplaces, nobody competes for anything. Open positions are handled one of two ways: nobody applies at all; or, the in-house favorite “competes” against a sudden surge of highly competitive out-of-state applicants. Please do read between the lines.
A red flag at air medical companies is when pilot management positions are staffed by pilots brand new to air medical. So you’re not qualified to fly IFR or goggles yet, but you are uniquely qualified to run the base? How does that work, exactly? Please note: this is not the fault of the newbie.
A jumbo-size toxicity flag is when pilot manager positions are staffed by non-pilots. So, you’re questioning why I turned down a flight for weather, but you’ve never actually flown (or started) an aircraft? Successful “missions” on Microsoft flight simulator do not count as Single Pilot Instrument Flight Rules (SPIFR) experience.
At the corporate level, if you see key positions like safety or operations open for long periods of time—don’t walk away, run! You do not want to work for a company that cares so little about its employees that it fails to staff key positions. This is another sure sign of toxicity.
#8 High Turnover
High turnover is a trademark of toxic workplaces.
If you’re consistently replacing operators and / or managers, you need to take a hard look at why this is happening. Sure, some people aren’t a good fit and there is a certain amount of normal turnover. But 10 times the industry average isn’t normal.
If your crews spend their downtime trying to remember all the names of past crew and pilots . . . here’s your sign. Your workplace is toxic. And don’t go thinking your barrel of toxic sludge is half full with some pending positive outcome. That’s not how toxicity works. You don’t get to pick who leaves on their own. In fact, your best and brightest are already gone, right?
Plus, the personnel challenges you were hoping would leave on their own, don’t. The socially awkward pilot who makes all your female crew members uncomfortable? Yeah, he didn’t leave. In a toxic environment, he’s your next chief pilot. See the problem?
#9 It Takes An Act of God, To Get Anything Done
Apply the reasonable person test to pending projects in your EMS organization. The results are telling.
Here’s what I mean:
Ask yourself how long it would take a reasonable person to complete any given task. For example, what is a reasonable time estimate for construction of new crew quarters? Be fair in your assessment, otherwise your results are tainted. Under normal circumstances, maybe six months to one year? Under challenging circumstances (legal barriers, zoning, special permits, etc) maybe one-year to one-and-a-half years? You get the idea. Here’s the point:
If your workplace is taking 8-15 times the reasonable person estimate, it’s toxic.
When you’re measuring event success in decades— instead of years, months, or weeks—your workplace is toxic.
#10 You Know It In Your Gut
This is the most difficult sign of all.
You already know things at your workplace are not as they should be. You watch signs of toxicity manifest and good people leave and move on.
You know you’ve “changed” certain things about yourself to “compete” in your current workplace.
It’s a shame, because you also know how hard you worked and how much you sacrificed to get here.
But you can’t seem to shake that uneasy feeling . . .
No matter how hard you try. No matter how many good cases you fly. You know it in your gut.
What do you do after a reality check like the one you just read?
Only you can answer that question. Only you know what’s best for you.
From personal experience, I will confirm there is life after EMS and air medical. If you don’t remember anything else from this article, remember that no job is worth a career, and no career is worth your life.
Take a hard look at your current situation. Make a fair assessment. Then listen to your inner voice. It knows what to do next.
Have you ever experienced toxicity in a workplace? Share a learning experience in the comments section below.