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As a first responder, there are a seemingly endless number of roads that can lead to burnout. Mentally prepared or not, working in the high-pressure environment we do can be draining and take its toll on mental and physical health. In this article, we talk about what first responder burnout is, its causes, signs, and strategies for taking back your career.
What is First Responder Burnout?
A type of job-related stress or fatigue caused by the daily demands of the job. It is a reaction to the physical and emotional strain of the job and can lead to feelings of exhaustion and detachment from work. Some people know they have it and you may hear them talk about it daily as a coping mechanism. Others have no idea and even more may be in denial.
Burnout can be a debilitating condition that affects performance and relationships with your crew and family members. It can also lead to physical and psychological symptoms such as insomnia, depression, and anxiety. It’s easy to know when you can’t sleep but depression and anxiety can be easily missed in self-diagnosis. Below, we talk about ways you can keep these symptoms from falling through the cracks.
The good news is that burnout is preventable and can be managed if you take steps to recognize the signs and take action to address them.
Causes of First Responder Burnout
There are innumerable things that can contribute to first responder burnout. A few of these may be:
• Exposure to traumatic events: We all have more than our share of these. Even though it’s “normal” for us to experience fires, accidents, and violence, that doesn’t mean we were meant to internally cope with those scenes.
• High-pressure environment: Adding in the constant videoing of every move to an already stressful environment is just the cherry on top. Split-second decisions and many times, a lack of resources, push this one way up the list.
• Long hours: Few are the nights where the tones and dispatch don’t find their way to your ears. That means long shifts, little sleep and the need to keep going when you get home. For me, this is a tough one because I never want to lose a minute as dad or husband.
• Lack of support: Who we choose as our support makes all the difference. As a firefighter, I feel I have a deep well of coworker family to reach out to but not everyone does. If this isn’t a problem for you, make sure to be part of someone else’s system. You could save their career.
• Poor self-care: This is fancy talk for find a routine on shift and post shift to take care of yourself.
Signs of First Responder Burnout
Burnout can be hard to recognize, but there are some common signs to look out for:
• Exhaustion: Feeling physically and emotionally drained, even after a full night’s rest.
• Detachment: Feeling disconnected from work and colleagues.
• Loss of motivation: Feeling apathetic towards work and no longer finding joy in it, even the parts that used to fire you up.
• Irritability: Becoming easily frustrated and agitated.
• Depression: Feeling sad and hopeless. This is hard to recognize in yourself. Having some “real talk” with trusted coworkers or family can really improve the chance of catching this but…you have to be willing to listen, even if you don’t like it.
• Anxiety: Feeling overwhelmed and unable to cope. Sometimes this can even present as constant worry or making small things into big things.
• Poor physical health: Experiencing headaches, stomach aches, and other physical symptoms.
If you are experiencing any of these symptoms, here are a few things you can do about it! Even a small step is a step, right?
Strategies for Overcoming Burnout
Creating a Support System
Creating a support system is one of the most important steps in managing burnout. Reach out to family, friends, and colleagues who can provide emotional and moral support when times are tough. And call me crazy but dropping all that on your spouse when you get home, who more than likely isn’t mentally prepared for the stress load as you are, doesn’t seem to be the best choice. Of course you want to talk to them, but step back and ask yourself, “Is it fair for me to constantly come home and drop my stress onto them?” The reason I bring up this point is because most spouses will be your ear willingly. They WANT to help you. But the truth is that the gory details of this profession aren’t their weight to carry. It’s not yours to carry alone either. Avoid the obvious options and put some effort into finding another outlet.
Find A Mentor
I’m a big fan of mentors. Like official, I asked them and they agreed to hold me accountable mentors. This is the perfect time to ask someone you respect and want to emulate, if they would consider being your mentor. As crazy as it sounds, sometimes even your mentors need a push to keep on keeping on. Being able to pass down their knowledge and experience could be as helpful to them as it is to you. So give yourself a high standard to aim for that fires you up and your work and family life will thank you!
Working with a Professional Therapist
I know, the terrible word Therapy. But if you are struggling with burnout and haven’t been able to make the lasting changes yourself, it may be time to call in the big guns. Throw the stigma out the window and think about what you want from your life, your family or your career! A therapist can help you work through what’s going on in your head and provide you with tools to manage your stress and symptoms. There are also online therapists, like at Waji.
Taking Time for Self-Care
It is important to take time for yourself and do things YOU like to do. Showers, honey dos, rest, and downtime all need their moment in the sun. So many first responders leave shift and head straight to their second job. This may work for a while, but when it doesn’t, make a change. You have to relax and recharge every now and again without looking at it as time/money lost.
Developing a Routine
Creating a routine can help to reduce stress and keep you on track. This could include setting aside time for work, leisure activities, and self-care including physical training. With a busy family life, this is a must at my house and it lessens my worry big time.
Getting Enough Sleep
You can’t control the tons. But getting enough sleep is essential for your physical and mental health. When you go home, try like hell to make sure to get at least 7-8 hours of sleep each night. Put the phone away and recharge!
Taking a Break
Taking a break from work is important. As a firefighter, I work 24 (or soon to be 48) hour shifts so sometimes I have to find ways to relax my brain while I’m still on shift. I have recently started taking 60 seconds to breathe , clear my mind and do absolutely nothing and I know, it sounds stupid. But for some reason, it seems to take all the constant noise in my head and just turn it down. Maybe not all the way off but definitely down, like a quick and easy reset button. Highly recommend giving this a try.
I’ll Wrap It Up
Burnout, especially for first responders, is a serious issue that can have serious consequences. We have to recognize the signs of burnout and take action to prevent it, in ourselves and others. Taking steps such as creating a support system, working with a professional therapist, taking time for self-care, developing a routine, getting enough sleep, finding a mentor and taking a break can help to reduce stress and prevent burnout. I believe this is a 1% system, where you can choose to move up or down just a bit everyday. Invest in yourself and become a tool for change in your department. And put that pride aside my friends, because you won’t do many things bigger than restarting your love for your life and your career!
Bryce Jones is a firefighter/paramedic in Texas and the owner of For the Brave LLC. His mission is to further the first responder community and For the Brave has become the instrument for that change. The For the Brave website and mobile app are completely free for “The Brave” to use but you can support this mission by utilizing the small business partners on the site, sporting For the Brave apparel and even running your own branch of For the Brave in Texas! For more information, reach out to us at firstname.lastname@example.org