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“When You First Start Out You Feel Like You Don’t Have Control” – Quality of Life, Control, and the Canadian Forces

by Joan Wharf Higgins and Tanis Farish, University of Victoria

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We are grateful to the Health Services Research and Development Board, Human Resources Research and Evaluation, Canadian Forces and Department National Defence for funding this study.

Quality of Life and the Canadian Forces

Concerned with the health and well-being of their serving members, issues relating to quality of life (QOL) and occupation are important to the Canadian Forces (CF) in order to enhance recruitment and retention, and to achieve mission objectives. Typically, QOL studies in the health field usually focus upon illness – while paying scant attention to the environmental determinants of health and well-being. When QOL is defined as the ‘degree to which a person enjoys the important possibilities of his or her life’,1 it resonates strongly with the definition that ‘health is a resource for everyday living’.2

While there is an abundance of research in civilian settings linking certain work characteristics to health, little has been documented about issues salient to the Canadian Forces. For example, in non-military work environments, issues of workplace structure, status, and a sense of control over work-related decisions affect health-related quality of life, cardiovascular disease, absenteeism, muscular injury, anxiety and depression.3-6 Often, it is the social organization of work, such as management styles and social relationships in the workplace, that contribute to overall health.7-8 As well, job attributes, such as physical conditions of work, work pace and work stress, opportunities for self-expression and individual development, and work-life balance all affect employee health9 and performance.10

In the military, discipline is a fundamental aspect of work. The rules are defined and administered to ensure consistency at every level in the chain of command. Status may be particularly germane for CF members since rank permeates every aspect of the organization, and is clearly displayed on uniform dress. How do these unique and traditional charac- teristics of Canada’s military influence the QOL of its members?

These are the issues we set out to explore and better understand. In 2004, we conducted a case study to assess and describe QOL issues for newly-recruited CF naval recruits, as well as to capture their recommendations for enhancing their QOL. We used the Quality of Life Profile questionnaire developed at the University of Toronto as a way to measure the components and determinants of recruits’ health and well-being. And we invited all 120 non-commissioned CF members in Combat Operations Trade training at a CF Fleet School in Canada to participate in the study. These individuals were either in training programs of approximately 19 weeks in duration, or they were classified as personnel awaiting training. Seventy-one members agreed to answer the 54 questions on the survey, and 17 volunteered to participate in personal interviews. The survey asked members to indicate the relative importance they attributed to nine dimensions of QOL: Physical, Psychological and Spiritual functioning; Physical, Social and Community connections; and Practical, Leisure and Growth opportunities for maintaining and enhancing skills. On each of these QOL dimensions, members also rated the extent of their enjoyment, their perceived control, and the opportunities available to them. Using descriptive and correlational statistics, we analyzed the survey responses. The interviews were then scheduled so we could describe the overall survey findings to each member, ask for explanations (i.e., what about their quality of life was negative?), and gather their suggestions for enhancing their QOL through military and site specific programs, services or policies.

How CF Trainees Feel About Their QOL

The survey found that most CF trainees (85 percent) reported they were satisfied with their QOL, although the largest portion (37 percent) declared their QOL as only ‘adequate’. The most concerning finding was that 54 percent of CF trainees had a negative QOL in the area of Physical Connections. This pertains to how the recruits saw themselves as fitting in with the physical aspects of their environment. The perceptions of Control and Choice were significantly related with most aspects of QOL. This meant that the more control members felt they had over their life, and the more opportunities available to them, the more they were satisfied with their overall quality of life.

Most members participating in the interviews felt satisfied with their overall QOL, with the exception of the areas related to lack of autonomy, control, and choices available for defining their living arrangements during their trades training. One of the major themes identified through the interview data was the desire for recruits to live in a more suitable living environment, and to feel they have more control over living circumstances, in order to maintain an optimal quality of life. Recommended changes included increasing healthy food choices, decreasing the residential period, decreasing the number of trainees per dormitory room, and making allowances for more personal responsibility in maintaining the dormitory rooms. These included allowing personal effects, such as bed covers and pictures, some décor options, as well as mandating a personal cleaning responsibility. These concerns negatively affected how members saw themselves physically and psychologically, and their connections with physical and community environments. In addition, trainees spoke of dissatisfaction with their work/life balance; a concern shared by an increasing amount of civilian Canadians, but one compounded by the reality of living on base:

“I feel you don’t have any control over any of it, living in the shacks because you are not getting away from work, you are always at work” [Male CF trainee].

Furthermore, in the hierarchical structure of the military, control rarely lay with trainees:

“When you first start out you feel like you don’t have control – you feel like it is all in your instructor’s hands really.” [CF Male Trainee]

“It is a matter of getting used to the fact that they can really tell you what to do and you have to do it. I think that is the biggest adjustment for me.” [CF Male Trainee]

For recruits participating in this study, their sense of spiritual and social connections significantly decreased with length of service. This represents a significant area of concern, since the average length of service was a mere 1.6 years for this sampling. What does this mean for long serving members and their sense of spiritual well-being, and their sense of social connectedness with others? When we explored these findings during the interviews, the primary explanation was the lack of opportunity on base to pursue interests and activities distinct from those of a military nature. For example, the trainees felt they were unable to become a part of the greater community due to the lack of opportunity available to them, and that they did not ‘hang out’ with any peers, other than Canadian Forces members. Suggestions included providing social alternatives, other than the ‘bar scene’, and more co-ed activities, as well as opportunities for volunteerism in the civilian community.

Shifting Outdated Traditions May Increase CF Trainees’ Sense of Control

Supported by our study’s findings, we suggest that there are several areas that can be addressed to increase CF trainees’ Quality of Life. Lack of privacy and interpersonal conflict were described as negatively influencing their living circumstances, possibly constricting opportunities for individual development, self-expression and work-life balance. A further restriction on self- expression was the minimal quantity of personal effects permitted in the living quarters. Admittedly, such a policy serves to mask economic differences among roommates, but it can also be a potent reminder of a loss of self. The application of these recommendations requires changing the policy with respect to the ‘live in’ or residential period required of each trainee, providing accommodations for older trainees to live off base, limiting the number of trainees per room, and increasing healthy eating choices in the mess halls.

Commenting on the tension between command and control, defence scientists Pigeau and McCann note: “Unbridled expression of command creativity can quickly lead to organizational chaos. Conversely, over-control can quickly lead to personnel de-motivation. Finding the correct balance is one of the premier challenges facing modern military organizations.”11 Although their remarks describe command and control in field operations, it may be that the balance sought can be nurtured during members’ early experiences. Indeed, sociologist and historian Scot Robertson12 suggests that even in hierarchically-structured institutions, there are some models that can facilitate innovation while being responsive to the chain of command. In keeping with a military tradition, innovation can be approached in a disciplined and systematic fashion. One such model is the standing group, located outside the normal hierarchy, but responsive and accountable to that hierarchy. To be successful, the standing group needs to connect with the rest of the organization and its processes. For example, a residential advisory committee, where trainees can voice their concerns, would provide an avenue to communicate these concerns up the chain of command, and to take action on issues identified as significant to QOL


In summary, for this sample of CF trainees, the majority reported an adequate, very acceptable, or excellent quality of life. This is a positive result for which the military can be commended. While the hierarchical nature of civilian work settings is responsible for negatively affecting health and work satisfaction,13 this is an accepted reality among CF trainees. During the interviews, trainees acknowledged that they expected a military career to be founded on hierarchical management, yet they strongly articulated a need for a sense of control regarding their living conditions, both in terms of physical and social features, and opportunities for non-military leisure and engagement. Limiting options for autonomy and self-expression in these ways functioned to dampen a sense of connectedness to their physical environment, social connections and spiritual self.

The findings from this case study illustrate the need to gather important information to ensure that new recruits have a positive initial experience in order to maintain retention and to decrease attrition rates. Many of the issues identified as important to the trainees require solutions that focus more on shifting outdated traditions rather than an infusion of costly services and programs. The widely cited definition of health promotion refers to enhancing people’s control over their own health.14 Health promotion, translated for the military context, would mean the implementation of empowering organizational structures and policies, such as a residential advisory committee, to enhance QOL during members’ formative years as a preventive strike against chronic and debilitating disease, early retirement, or sick leave. Indeed, QOL issues related to work-life balance and a sense of control are best addressed when members enter the military, and before problems begin.15

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Joan Wharf Higgins, PhD, is a Canada Research Chair in Health and Society and Associate Professor in the School of Physical Education, University of Victoria.

Tanis Farish, MEd, is a graduate student at the University of Victoria in the School of Physical Education.


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