The world of emergency care is hard. We see and do things that most other people never experience. But for most of us (as you probably already know), helping people with their various woes isn’t the hard part. We generally love that part, even when the circumstances are wretched.

What’s actually hard is spending time doing our EMS craft at a place that sucks the confidence, cheerfulness and zeal from our well-intended psyches. Passion for helping others in distress leads us to this work, but all too often, it’s (some of) the people we spend time working for and among who are most instrumental in extinguishing that passion. It’s especially dispiriting when “leaders” don’t lead, but to their defense, leadership is always more challenging when people don’t know how to be good followers.

Building Reserves

In a perfect world, the organizations we serve would do well at building up our reserves of goodwill and morale. These reserves are protection against those circumstances that conspire to rip and shred our good intentions.

Yet morale, that intangible undercurrent of satisfaction for being in a place that makes people feel validated and supported, is an enormously elusive thing for many organizations.

Even when the calls are grim, a place with good morale has a way of somehow making us feel ok. Some managers may shrug it off, but morale is an undeniably important element of organizational success. Ideally, it most matters because a confident and committed workforce will likely treat the people they serve honorably and well. But in case that’s not reason enough, then skeptical managers might find the following reasons compelling, since they’re notably better for the financial bottom line: positive agency reputation, worker retention (whether paid or volunteer), reduced turnover, and reduced workplace stress and absenteeism.

Smart leaders know these things, and work very hard to help their people feel better about the work they do. That is, smart leaders actively build morale. According to the 2009 landmark study, the MacLeod Report, good morale yields higher levels of employee capability and potential. “If it is how the workforce performs that determines to a large extent whether companies or organizations succeed,” according to the report’s authors, “then whether or not the workforce is positively encouraged to perform at its best should be a prime consideration for every leader and manager, and be placed at the heart of business strategy.”

Building morale seems a constant topic in leadership and management circles, but that’s because it never ends. It’s that garden which is beautiful while tended, but which goes all too quickly to seed when ignored. Below are some fixes for poor morale.

For Leaders

  • Lead with positivity. Constantly work to find ways to lift the troops up, not beat them down.
  • Individualize criticism. Don’t chew out the entire department when the message really only needs to get to a couple of people.
  • Give all members of the organization a genuine voice without being patronizing or dismissive. Listen and hear what they are saying.
  • Be consistently careful to follow up and follow through on promises.
  • Give frequent, specific feedback. Among the main reasons people leave EMS is lack of feedback, about both their own performance and the outcomes of the people they serve.
  • Model desired behaviors every minute of every hour, whether anyone is watching or not. Leaders who come off lazy or uncommitted will encounter followers who do the same.
  • Commit to initiatives. Let them flare out often enough and people will stop getting excited for improvements because they’ll learn they won’t last.
  • Help the members of the “bitch and moan” squad find the door out. You know who they are.

For Followers

  • Refuse to engage in gossip or fanning the fires of the rumor mill.
  • Encourage others to quit gossiping, too.
  • Let go of grudges and perceived slights.
  • Get to know colleagues beyond the shared patches. Show a genuine interest in your team.


Esprit de corps—good morale—generates heart and soul in a place because the people who belong there breathe life into it. Although everyone arrives at the EMS door with different reasons and expectations, it’s worth the work of building the team into a cohesive group with shared values and commitment.

The choice is yours. Make it happen.


1. MacLeod D, Clarke N. (July 2009.) Engaging for success: Enhancing performance through employee engagement. London’s Global University. Retrieved March 31, 2018, from