The personality traits best suited to the stressors of being a paramedic or nurse – at a time when resilience on the front line is needed more than ever

Even before the coronavirus pandemic, Australia’s nurses and paramedics were at a higher risk than the general population for depression and PTSD.

A Monash University study has looked at the types of personalities that these two professions attract with the aim of either recruiting people that are better suited – personality wise – to these high stress jobs, or assisting people who choose these professions to become more resilient.

Rod Mason spent 22 years working as a paramedic in Hobart. After an injury, he moved into the education and training sector including supporting the teaching of the next generation of paramedics both in Australia and Abu Dhabi. In 2014 he began a PhD with the Monash University Department of Paramedicine and recently published part of his study on personality traits best suited to paramedicine and nursing in the journal, Australasian Emergency Care, with his supervisors, Professor Brett Williams and Dr John Roodenburg.

There are more than 17,000 registered paramedics in Australia. Their job places them in high risk situations involving physical trauma and stress. It is estimated that 88% of Australian paramedics experience occupational-based violence including being punched, kicked, bitten, spat at and stabbed in their career.

Studies have found that the incidence of PTSD in paramedics can be as high as 16%, significantly higher than the 4.4% average across the general population in Australia.

Similarly, a 2019 report revealed that the number of nurses assaulted in Victorian health settings has increased by a shocking 60 per cent in the past three years. Data shows assaults in hospitals are also on the rise in Queensland, where there has been a 48 per cent increase, and in NSW, where acts of violence are up by 44 per cent over roughly the same period.

According to Mr Mason, being a nurse or a paramedic can be one of the most challenging job choices. “Working at the frontline of emergency services has always been stressful, but now the added impact of COVID and the need to constantly protect yourself and others from infection has made these jobs significantly more stressful,” he said.

As part of his PhD, Mr Mason has reviewed global research into the types of personalities that are attracted to nursing and paramedicine, looking at what is called the Big Five of personality types: neuroticism (or showing emotional instability), extroversion, conscientiousness, agreeableness and openness to experience.

His review shows that – amongst nurses and paramedics – the most desirable traits are Low Neuroticism and High Extroversion. “These traits are the best indicators for those who can manage the stressors involved with these jobs,” Mr Mason said.

“In general, it’s these types of personalities that can cope better towards the violence, shift work and emotional upheavals that are often the daily existence of paramedics and nurses.”

Importantly Mr Mason argues that those with High Neuroticism and Low Extroversion, and therefore psychologically less suited for a career in paramedicine and nursing, are not necessarily precluded from these careers. “Even though personality traits tend to be stable, we can identify those students with these traits in nursing and paramedicine training to ensure we build a greater level of resilience in them before they start their careers,” he said.