In the outdoor behavioral healthcare industry, the largest group of employees is undeniably the field instructors that operate on a daily basis with the clients. These individuals spend extended periods of time in remote wilderness areas, sometimes up to 21 days, often making on the spot decisions to assure the safety and well-being of adolescents struggling with behavioral and/or emotional issues. Previous research has raised some questions concerning burnout (Kirby, 2006) and job demands (Marchand, Russell & Cross, 2009) with possible relations to retention of field instructors. The rapid turnover of these individuals may be linked to unrealistic expectations and inadequate training concerning the job demands of this type of work. A mixed-method design was utilized to evaluate expected levels of job demand stressors, current job satisfaction, psychological well-being, and elements of the initial field instructor training, job choice and organizational choice.
Eight North American wilderness therapy programs distributed a questionnaire to all their field instructors yielding 129 participants. A retrospective pre-test was used to evaluate expectation levels of job demand stressors, while job satisfaction and psychological well-being were measured with the Job Satisfaction Survey and the PGWB-S. Qualitative questions also inquired about the most important elements of field instructor initial training, as well as reasons for job choice and organizational choice in wilderness therapy.
A MANOVA indicated an interaction between job demand stressors and job satisfaction, where field instructors who had underestimated their job demand stressors had lower job satisfaction, mainly in the areas of pay, promotion, fringe benefits, contingent rewards, coworkers and communication. Findings also revealed that field instructors either underestimated or overestimated over half of the job demand stressors they had retrospectively evaluated. MANOVA was also used to evaluate the interaction between job satisfaction and tenure. Results indicated that as tenure length increased job satisfaction lowered, mainly in the areas of promotion, contingent rewards, operating conditions and communication.
When asked about working in wilderness therapy, field instructors reported altruistic reasons as the most important reason for doing this type of work. Specific program characteristics were most often reported as the reason why they chose their specific organization. Information concerning the initial training indicated that over 75% of field instructors had participated in training with an average of 7 days. Field instructors thought that therapeutic and behavioral management skills were the most important element of their initial training.
Evidences from this study lead to believe that field instructors could benefit from having a better understanding of the job demands of wilderness therapy. While job satisfaction of field instructor was high and psychological well-being was generally positive, field instructor showed a decline in job satisfaction when they had mostly underestimated their job demands and has they increased days of field experience.