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The military profession is inherently stressful and is getting more so for U.S. troops, who are deploying more often and for longer periods of time on missions that are multifaceted, changeable, and ambiguous. Such stressful conditions can lead to a range of health problems and performance decrements even among leaders. But not everyone reacts in negative ways to environmental stress. Most people remain healthy and continue to perform well even in the face of high stress levels. While much attention in recent years has focused on identifying and treating stress-related breakdowns such as post-traumatic stress disorder, scant investment has gone toward the study of healthy, resilient response patterns in people.
This paper focuses attention on mental hardiness, an important pathway to resilience. Research over the past 25 years has confirmed that psychological hardiness is a key stress-resilience factor. People who show high levels of psychological hardiness exhibit greater commitment (the abiding sense that life is meaningful and worth living), control (the belief that one chooses and influences his or her own future), and acceptance of challenge (a perspective on change in life as something that is interesting and valuable). We begin with an essential first step: clarifying the major stress factors that are salient in modern military operations. Next, we give a brief summary of the theory and research behind the hardiness construct. Finally, we provide a number of suggestions for how to increase hardiness and stress resilience in organizations, primarily through leader actions and policies. By setting the conditions that increase mental hardiness, leaders at all levels can enhance human health and performance, while preventing many stress-related problems before they occur.
Psychological Stress Factors in Modern Military Operations
The military occupation exposes its members to a wide range of stressors. Combat-related stressors are the most obvious and extreme ones and garner the most attention, (1) but military operations in the post-Cold War era entail a wide range of challenges and potential stress factors. (2) The numbers of peacekeeping, peacemaking, humanitarian, and other kinds of operations have increased dramatically, while military force levels have not kept pace with demand. (3) Partly as a result of substantial 1990s force reductions, deployments are more frequent and longer in duration than in times past, especially for U.S. Army personnel. This in turn has brought other changes in military units, including more training exercises, planning sessions, and equipment inspections in preparation for deployment. All these factors add to the workload and pace of operations on the home front. (4) More intense work schedules and frequent deployments also force more family separations, a well-documented stressor for Servicemembers. (5)
One possible avenue for reducing the stress associated with military operations is to lessen the frequency and duration of deployments. Unfortunately, strategic imperatives and troop shortages may prevent this. The military is not alone in this regard; the same is true (at least at times) in other occupations and contexts. For example, following the 9/11 terrorist strike on the World Trade Center, fire, police, and other emergency personnel maintained continuous operations around the clock with the goal of locating possible survivors, as well as restoring essential services to the affected areas. In another example, thousands of disaster response workers were involved in rescuing victims and restoring basic services in New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina in August 2005. In such crisis situations, continuous operations and extreme efforts are necessary to save lives; easing the pace of work may be considered unacceptable or even unethical. However, when operations become long-term, workload requirements should be realigned with what the existing workforce can reasonably sustain. Though what forces can sustain is a lot--perhaps much more than they know--leaders should still be aware of limits and know how to preserve their forces as they approach the outer thresholds of mental endurance.
What can be done to mitigate or counter the stressors associated with military operations? To answer this question, it is important to begin with a clear picture of the nature of the stressors encountered by military personnel on modern deployments. This understanding requires going beyond simple lists of items or events that may be perceived as stressful to get to more basic underlying dimensions. Extensive field research with deployed U.S. military units led to the identification of five primary psychological stress dimensions associated with modern military operations: isolation, ambiguity, powerlessness, boredom, and danger. (6) Today, with the greatly increased frequency and pace of deployments for U.S. forces and the long work periods involved, an additional significant stress factor should be added to the list: workload or operations tempo. These dimensions are summarized in table 1.
Operational deployments typically are to remote areas, far from home and families. Reliable methods for communicating with home are often lacking. Email is usually unavailable, and traditional mail can be sporadic and take weeks to deliver. Most of the usual stress-relieving activities, such as exercise, athletics, sports, television, movies, and games are not available. Although most deployed soldiers will know each other because of the Army's current reliance on unit rotation policies, there will still be some individual replacements due to casualties and other unexpected depletions of essential unit strength. For these individuals, the initial stress of social isolation can be more acute as they attempt to fit into an established group of friends. Also, in many cases a deploying unit is configured as a task force tailored for a specific mission, which means many members are strangers who have not worked together previously. Security and operational concerns often generate movement restrictions (for example, when troops are restricted from leaving their base camp). Troops may also be banned from interacting with the local populace and prevented from participating in such familiar activities as jogging for exercise or displaying the American flag. Frequently, there are also multiple constraints on dress and activities. Troops have few choices in their daily existence. Movement and communication restrictions also deter troops from learning about local culture and language and about resources that might be available locally. All of these factors contribute to a sense of social isolation.
In modern military operations, a unit's mission, rules of engagement, and situation are often unclear to the Servicemember and can require rapid role changes. In the late 1990s, Marine Corps Commandant General Charles Krulak described this mix as a "three-block war" in reference to the need for Marines (and Soldiers) to be able to conduct full-scale military action, peacekeeping operations, and humanitarian relief within the space of three contiguous city blocks, sometimes engaging in two or all three roles on the same day. (7) It can be hard for soldiers to quickly shift to different rules of engagement (Do I knock on the door, or kick it down?). Mental judgment cannot be instantly reprogrammed or fully divorced from emotions. The role and purpose of military personnel can be ambiguous in these conditions. Also, the command structure is not always clear, a situation that arises, for example, when support units are realigned to different combat units because of changing operational conditions. Another factor adding to ambiguity is insufficient knowledge of host nation language and cultural practices, although predeployment training may provide some basic …