Health and wellness spotlight: The importance of the chief’s health

February 16, 2021

by Dr. Anna Courie - Director, Responder Wellness, FirstNet Program at AT&T

About a year before I left my job working for the U.S. Army, a General Officer I had known died suddenly, shortly after retiring. I wish I could say this was the only tragic story of a great leader dying after giving their time, talent and purpose to take care of their people and mission. But it’s not. 

Those in high-stress careers have a lower life expectancy than the general population. Leadership can take a toll. And while public safety is stressful, leadership in public safety can be exponentially more so.

Stress is a silent killer. Yes, stress can be good to a certain degree. It heightens awareness. It focuses our attention so we can achieve specific goals. And in dangerous situations, it’s the body’s defense mechanism to keep us safe. But this message can be misleading for professions that are chronically stressful. We take stress for granted because it comes with the territory. And we need to rethink this, especially in leadership.

“Sheepdog” professions 

LTC (Ret) Dave Grossman, author of On Killing and On Combat (among other titles) calls public safety “sheepdog” professions or protector professions. I look at this cohort of professions (military, law enforcement, fire, EMT, dispatch, etc.) as those that run towards trouble instead of away from it. That commitment is inherently stressful. And the chiefs who lead these professions have a level of stress that has a compounding effect on their bodies.

As we move into the month dedicated to Heart Health, let’s take a look at the impact of chronic stress on the human body. Stress increases cortisol and that constant stream of cortisol is tough on cardiovascular (heart) health. First responders have a higher risk for cardiovascular disease than the general population. The effects of chronic stress, shift work, sometimes sedentary work, coupled with a poor diet lead towards a high mortality rate associated with cardiovascular disease.1 And while heart health is an issue for all public safety, it’s important for chiefs to think about their own health and not just the health of their people.2

Lead from the front  

You know the health of your people is vital to the responsiveness of your organization. Officers who are healthy and resilient are more likely to respond effectively in high stress situations than those who have not addressed chronic health issues. Your health is just as important.

I subscribe to servant leadership. We should not ask our subordinates, peers, or associates to do anything we wouldn’t do ourselves. So, if you are encouraging your people to take care of their mental and physical health, you need to do the same.  You will be more effective at your job when you take the time to take care of yourself.

They are watching

Your subordinates are watching. They want to see if your deeds match your words. It will be hard for your junior officers to take their mental and physical health seriously if they don’t see you prioritizing your own. Your behaviors drive the culture you want to see in your organization. People are more likely to take action with healthy behaviors when it’s knit into the department’s culture, starting at the top. We also know organizations that collaborate in healthy endeavors build a sense of community and belonging. Relationships built around a common theme help develop a community of resilience. And this is critical to the success of public safety in executing their mission.

Remember your purpose

Reflect on why you got into public safety. Odds are you did it out of a desire to serve and protect. That’s the reason you put on the uniform every day. And the gift of leadership lets you tap into those values to guide the people you lead. People who see value and meaning in the work they do are more satisfied, have higher resiliency, and feel a sense of gratitude for the opportunity to make a difference. You’re not in your leadership position by happenstance. You are there for a reason. And you can use that to drive the transformation you want to see.

Get your checkups

You already live the stressful life that public safety seems to take for the norm. That means there will be impacts on your body as you get older. You will be more prone to injury and illness – especially if you’re not taking time for self-care. As you age, things like high blood pressure, cancer, diabetes, and stroke became real threats. Getting regular  checkups with a professional lets you keep an eye out for these risk factors so you can continue to age with grace and verve.

Don’t put these habits off until you retire or “have more time.” These habits are central to your personal health and the health of your organization. So, this is your opportunity to shift a trend where hard-charging, dedicated leaders work hard, give their all and then die of a heart attack. Let’s change that.

I challenge you to work on these habits as a part of your 2021 plan. You’ll see a personal benefit – and your organization will as well. I want to help you improve your own health. So, that one day you can enjoy and thrive in a retirement you richly deserve.

Dr. Anna Courie, Director of Responder Wellness, FirstNet Program at AT&T is a nurse, Army wife, former adjunct professor, and author. Anna holds a Bachelor’s in Nursing from Clemson University; a Master’s in Nursing Education from the University of Wyoming; and a Doctor of Nursing Practice degree from Ohio State University. She is a passionate Clemson football fan; loves to read, cook, walk, hike; and prior to COVID-19, was an avid traveler.


1 McKeon, G.; Steel, Z.; Wells, R.; Newby, J; Hadzi-Pavlovic, D.; Vancampfort; D. & Rosenbaum, S. (2019). Mental health informed physical activity, for first responders and their support partners: a protocol for a stepped wedge evaluation of an online, codesigned intervention.  BMJ Open.

2 Zimmerman, Franklin H. MD Cardiovascular Disease and Risk Factors in Law Enforcement Personnel: A Comprehensive Review, Cardiology in Review: July/August 2012 - Volume 20 - Issue 4 - p 159-166 doi: 10.1097/CRD.0b013e318248d631