The life of a lifeguard has both ups and downs. On one hand, there is the intense satisfaction of having saved a life, while on the other, there is the post-traumatic stress of the incidents to deal with. Throughout their lives, lifeguards have to deal closely with events good and bad, survivals, rescues, accidents and death, which have a profound psychological impact on the lifeguard.
At SHM Shipcare, we recently had the privilege to work closely with the Baywatch Lifeguards Association and observe them at work. Through a series of in-depth discussions, we realized that while the job is physically taxing, it is often mentally stressful as well. Nevertheless, the men have found the strength to combat these situations and emerged all the more stronger for it.
We take a look at the advantages and drawbacks of being a lifeguard today and the psychological impact of various incidents that shape these men and women.
The Pros of Being a Lifeguard
Consistent Physical Fitness
One of the best things about being a lifeguard is that you stay in shape, out of necessity. A lifeguard has to exercise regularly and maintain peak fitness to be able to successfully help people in distress. Consequently, they do not face the challenges a sedentary worker might face.
Consistent fitness helps them remain energetic and alert throughout the day and prevents any illnesses or diseases caused by low immunity as well. Generally, lifeguards are not supposed to indulge in alcohol, smoking, or any other substance use, on account of the fact that it can hamper their decision-making qualities and physical fitness. This is helpful in protecting them from the resulting ailments and staying fit throughout their lives.
Improved Social Interaction
Working as a lifeguard comes with a lot of social interaction. The lifeguards have to handle different kinds of people through the duration of their work and each person needs to be handled in a unique manner. This lets lifeguards develop and hone their people skills, such that people take their advice seriously and accidents are prevented.
In addition, working as a lifeguard brings the man/woman in contact with people from different walks of life and can be a great way of building bridges with them. The job of lifeguards is people-centric and consequently, their personality is moulded accordingly as well.
Highly-developed Decision-making Skills
Lifeguards have bare seconds to identify the person in need of rescue. Making split-second decisions is second nature for a lifeguard. However, the decision is always well-considered, with all the positives and negatives weighed logically, as the life of the person depends on it. This ability to analyse a situation logically and immediately find the most appropriate solution out of it helps lifeguards in their day-to-day life as well.
Furthermore, this training and practice gives lifeguards the strength to stick to a decision and see that it is executed till the end.
The personal satisfaction of having saved a life is indescribable. Several lifeguards have narrated incidents when the thankful would-be victims and their relatives broke down in tears of joy after finding themselves safe. Lifeguards truly work to help the society, intangible, measurable ways. For that moment and evermore, the lifeguard is a hero to the people whom he has safely rescued. This gives a deep sense of fulfilment and is highly gratifying for the lifeguards.
The Cons of Being a Lifeguard
Considering the proverbial other side of the coin, the life of a lifeguard is not always hunky dory. On the contrary, the pressure of dealing with sudden rescues and near-drownings can get on a man’s nerves.
Possible Post-Traumatic Stress
Research indicates that a lot of teen lifeguards report suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder after having witnessed or helped in preventing near-drownings. This includes recurring nightmares, feelings of guilt for not handling the situation better or in a different manner, increased apprehensiveness. The trauma can have extreme impacts in some cases, from making the lifeguard deeply devotional or a complete atheist.
As they are a part of the maritime community, dealing with these possible psychological setbacks in the lives of the lifeguards becomes a matter of priority.
Some of the most important obstacles lifeguards have to combat and overcome are boredom and frustration. Studies show that lack of activity or too much activity can both result in boredom and drowsiness. This might lead to boredom and drowsiness in the lifeguard, which leads to missing out on potential danger signs and hence, accidents and injuries.
Lifeguards have to constantly employ various means to keep themselves awake and vigilant. In case of swimming pools, pool managers can conduct staged rescues or dummy-drops to help stave off the boredom.
Enforcement of Rules Requires Psychological Stamina
People in swimming pools or on beaches are out for a spot of fun and do not appreciate being instructed again and again. Small children are especially prone to running amok and then meeting with an accident. As the responsibility of safeguarding every life from danger is the lifeguard’s job, they have to constantly strive to make themselves heard and obeyed. This requires a lot of psychological stamina throughout the duration of the shift.
Lack of Equipment Necessitates Unnecessary Risks
In developed countries, lifeguarding equipment is taken seriously and adequately provided as required. In developing countries, the situation is not always this great. Lifeguards often have to function without advanced swimming safety equipment and make do with what they have. This necessitates that they take additional risks, endangering their own lives.
In incidents narrated by the BLA lifeguards, they have jumped several times into the water for rescuing people, with no regard for their own safety. However, these measures can be reduced if the appropriate safety equipment in the required quantity is made available.
We see that lifeguards have to deal with life and death on a daily basis. In fact, they are so used to observing and analysing people that they know just by looking at a person’s face if they are planning something drastic. It is not all glamorous work, but the satisfaction is worth it.
One of the lifeguards we interviewed mentioned the fact that he was especially involved in fishing dead bodies out of the sea. When asked how he dealt with the stress of seeing those bloated faces, or how he slept at night having seen what he has, he simply replied, “I don’t.”
This is one of many such instances where lifeguards are known to suffer the psychological impact of working so closely with water and people. It is important that lifeguard training institutions take the cognitive aspects of working as a lifeguard into account and design the studies accordingly, to help lifeguards combat and overcome these problems. As responsible denizens of our country, it is our job as well to follow safety rules and regulations and take care of each other, to contribute in a small but significant manner towards the mental well-being of our lifeguards!