University of Calgary
UofC Navigation

Distressed civilian workforce overlooked in war zones

Alex Bierman

The punishing psychological toll endured by military personnel in war zones has been extensively documented for years by researchers, perhaps more than ever in the wake of recent military engagements in Iraq and Afghanistan.

But there has been a troubling dearth of research examining the mental health toll exacted on the large numbers of civilians who work with the military in war zones.

Sociologists Alex Bierman, an assistant professor at the University of Calgary, and Ryan Kelty, an associate professor at Washington College in Maryland, point this out in a new study, published in the most recent issue of Social Psychology Quarterly.

The study examines the experiences of United States Department of Army civilians working in Iraq and Afghanistan. This work force, comprised of civilians employed by the military – including technicians and others working to support the military’s infrastructure and capabilities – is significant. In 2009, for example, the U.S. Army employed nearly a quarter of a million civilians, with over 6,000 deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan.

Even though these civilians are not on the frontlines fighting, they are still exposed to “life-threatening hazards,” says Bierman.

 “They may be exposed to IEDs (improvised explosive devices),” he elaborates. “And rocket or mortar attacks on the bases is not uncommon. The protocol for civilians in these instances is to grab their gear – their Kevlar vests and gasmasks – and head to the designated shelter until they receive further notice. Civilians frequently face this sort of overwhelming threat in their environment.”

This sense of prevailing hazardous conditions in the environment is technically termed ambient stressors. “Such ambient stressors are associated with anxiety, depression and anger,” says Bierman. “These are individuals working to support the nation’s military efforts and their experiences can take a toll on their mental health and wellbeing. That toll has not been acknowledged.”

He adds: “It’s important to understand that this may have long terms mental health effects and we should be offering support for that. Right now, we don’t.”

Bierman and Kelty’s future research in this area will focus on ways in which an improved workplace environment might be created for civilian workers in war zones. Even though the threats in war zones are ever present, Bierman believes that opportunities can be created within the workplace for a more supportive environment that can help reduce tension and stress in war.

Bierman and Kelty’s research recently came to the attention of NATO, with a presentation given at an international conference in Brussels last January.