Feature

Air Force psychologist Lt. Col. Frank Budd, PhD, has practiced psychology for almost 20 years, and during that time, he estimates that 30 percent of the patients he treated for depression actually suffered from tension-filled, stressful workplaces.

That always frustrated Budd, who explains that owing to privacy concerns and rules on confidentiality, all he could do was work with the individual, not directly address workplace problems.

"It's like doing family therapy, and the family's abusing the patient, but you never get to talk to the family," says Budd.

But in his most recent post as leader of the Organizational Consulting Office at Kirtland Air Force Base in Albuquerque, N.M., Budd is tackling that job-created stress.

The post is unique to installations within the Air Force Materiel Command, the organization responsible for acquisition, testing and logistics support within the Air Force, says Col. Terrence Feehan, commander of the 377th Air Base Wing and Budd's superior.

That's because Budd's job goes beyond the traditional role of military psychologists who offer individual counseling to finding ways to help Air Force command units function more effectively as organizations.

When a unit is experiencing difficulties and not performing its mission as well as it could, Feehan calls in Budd as a consultant. He says Budd's expertise in getting organizations to function better by promoting more communication achieves beneficial results for both individuals and the larger groups they work for.

"Having somebody who can use the right tools, or create the right dialogue, who is a disinterested party, has paid so much dividends for us," Feehan says.

More deployments, more stress

Just like other branches of the military, members of the Air Force face the stress of frequent overseas deployments caused by the demands of the "war on terrorism" in Iraq and Afghanistan.

And even for those personnel from a deployed unit who aren't sent overseas, there's more work to do back home in the United States because the job demands stay the same and there are fewer people on hand to get the work done

As an organizational consultant, Budd uses a number of tools to evaluate and improve a unit's organizational climate and performance, including:

  • "Wingman" culture. Units at the Kirtland base hold quarterly all-hands meetings with activities meant to build "unit cohesion"and trust between supervisors and the people they lead.

  • Morale assessment surveys. Unit members can fill out an online survey assessing morale. Based on the results, Budd works with a unit's leadership to identify problem areas, highlight strengths and collaborate on ways to improve.

  • Web-based mentoring. Through this program, junior Air Force personnel can regularly go online and seek mentoring advice, either on personal issues or professional goals, working one-on-one with a more senior Air Force member from a list of suggested activities, such as talking about ways to increase work skills or find their next assignment, while using the mentor's experience as a guide.

  • Skills training. Based on feedback from organizational leaders, Budd facilitates training on subjects such as leadership, team-building, emotional intelligence, effective communication between managers and employees, and personality styles at work.

Budd's consultations with units start in a variety of ways. Some come at the request of commanders such as Feehan, who can ask for a unit assessment survey. Budd also develops initiatives on his own, such as drawing together the base's first sergeants for meetings, and still more work is driven by Air Force-wide requirements, such as the wingman-culture events.

As a military psychologist, Budd says he brings a fresh perspective when he helps individual units self-evaluate their performance.

"I'm in the military as an internal consultant, yet I'm external to a particular organization," he explains.

Budd says people who serve in the Air Force, and the military in general, face extra "hoops" if they seek help from a psychologist. For some personnel, coming forward for treatment might cause them to be moved temporarily out of particularly sensitive jobs, such as piloting or work with nuclear weapons, he says.

That reticence can cause problems if people wait too long to seek help, Budd says.

"As a result what happens is that they've waited so long, that by the time they go get help, it's caused problems at work, they're hostile, they're not as sharp as they were, and a personal issue has become an occupational issue," he says. "By waiting so long, they have created the very thing they were trying to avoid."

Budd's path into psychology started when he was growing up. His father, who worked as a handwriting analyst for insurance companies helping select personnel for different jobs, would talk about some of his interactions with candidates.

Besides his father's work, Budd credits "The Bob Newhart Show,"the 1970s television comedy about the life of a Chicago psychologist, for sparking an interest in psychology.

"Just the whole idea of sitting down and talking with someone, and understanding what's going on in their life, and having some ideas to help them fascinate me," he says.

As a young man completing his graduate studies at the University of Missouri-Columbia, a friend interested Budd in the Air Force. Besides the guarantee of a secure job, Budd says he liked the variety of practice available in a career as an Air Force psychologist.

"The training was good, the pay was good, you went everywhere, did outpatient, inpatient, substance abuse, with great supervision," he says.

A unit turns around

Budd has risen steadily in his career, and has been selected for promotion to colonel this year.

At Kirtland, the 377th Air Base Wing functions much like a public works department for a small city, providing such essentials as medical services, police and fire departments, vehicle maintenance, road upkeep, water and electricity.

Feehan points to his experience with one particular struggling unit within his command last year as an example of how Budd's work helps organizations function better.

For five years, the unit had failed its initial inspection, and early last year, was refused certification by the inspection team, even after it tried to improve and correct problems.

"This unit's mission, if they do it wrong, can cause helicopters to crash…can cause lab experiments to fail and potentially waste hundreds of thousands of dollars," he says.

Last spring, Budd started working with the unit, which was made up of about 30 mostly senior civilians, and got them talking to each other through the summer.

In the fall, the unit had the best inspection it's ever had, says Feehan, thanks in large part to Budd's expertise in getting them to work as a team instead of as blame-pointing individuals.

After Budd consulted with them, the unit's civilians became so enthusiastic about their progress that they asked for a re-inspection, says Feehan, noting that the inspection team certified the unit after finishing their visit, handing it to him on the spot instead of waiting to write a report.

"When the inspectors finished, they said, 'It took us two hours in that organization to realize that these were not the same people,'" Feehan says. "They were the same physical bodies, but the whole mind-set had changed."

Budd says the unit's people file fewer employee grievances, enjoy better relations between supervisors and employees and have a better grasp of the mission and how to achieve it.

Budd's role shows how consulting psychologists can help organizations perform better in their overall mission while encouraging individual people to excel in their jobs, says Steve Gravenkemper, PhD, the past-president of Div. 13 (Society of Consulting Psychology).

Gravenkemper says Budd's work is an example of psychology thriving within the setting of a large organization, using the expertise of psychologists to build on individuals' strengths and enhance overall organizational performance, while not remaining confined to the mental health role of treating patients faced with specific problems.

Budd's example also shows that working directly for an organization, instead of relying on third-party payers for reimbursement for services, offers advantages for psychologists, he says.

"It places psychology in a much more proactive position," he says. "It expands the role from a focus on the mental health of an individual to a focus on the health of an organization, and I think that's a key shift in mind-set."