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 …