First Responder Burnout & Disaster Work

By Dr. Tania Glenn

During large scale events and disasters, first responders (police, fire, EMS, communications and hospital personnel) who are a little, somewhat, or very burned out often experience significantly more complicated burnout at the end of a disaster. Burnout is the result of coupling extremely high, sometimes unrealistic expectations with good intentions, and not having enough balance in one’s life.
The onset of burnout happens slowly. The process is hard to identify because it can be quite subtle. It happens like this: You enter a career to help others. You work hard and love your job. You put in a lot of hours, work overtime or second jobs, and surround yourself and your life with things and people that are associated with public safety. You work holidays and weekends because emergency services never rest. For a while, this feels great.

Over time, however, you realize that the majority of what you deal with is the dark and negative side of life. You respond to those who have called 911 only to be met with anger, hostility, disrespect, apathy and sometimes aggression. You see some horrible things. You witness death and trauma.

To further the process along, you begin to experience the effects that shift work and working on holidays can have on your personal life. If you are single, it is hard to meet people. If you are married, you notice the strains that your job places on your loved ones. You no longer have friends outside of work, and in your mind, you can never really get away from work. At the same time, you may be going through a major life challenge like a divorce, financial problems or the death of a loved one. These types of events are highly demanding of emotional and physical energy at a time when you have very little energy to give. Your personal energy gauge is chronically on empty.

Then we ask you to go to a disaster and give 150% of yourself, possibly more than once. While deployed, burnout sits on the back burner because the mission is so important and meaningful. At this point I warn first responders to not get sucked into the notion that your burnout is no longer there because you are feeling great about the mission. Instead, be prepared for your burnout to be exacerbated upon your return home. Be prepared so you can tackle it.

Getting through burnout involves restoring your resilience. It’s not hard, and small changes pay off big time. The process requires looking at your life and figuring out how to regain the balance between your work and your personal time, and between negative stress and positive stress. Begin by focusing on the basics – health, hydration, nutrition, rest, exercise. Then tackle the more advanced concepts – your family, friends, hobbies, faith. Focus on the things that make you who you are outside of the job. These are the things you will have in your life when you retire. Foster these aspects of your life. You may even have to teach yourself how to have fun again.

Recovering from burnout sometime means modifying the amount of time you work, changing your role or duties (if possible), picking up healthy habits like exercise, letting go of unhealthy habits like excessive alcohol consumption, finding new hobbies, making new friends and reconnecting with your loved ones. Once you have conquered burnout, your life, energy, sense of humor and outlook will be monumentally better than they once were.

In my practice, I have found that employees who have recovered from burnout often become some of the best assets to their departments. They carry an infinite amount of wisdom and personal experience with them, and they tend to look out for others who seem to be headed down the same path. The best person to recognize a fellow employee is burned out is another first responder who has already been there.

On a final note, it is important to mention that burnout often mimics major depression. If you choose to talk to someone in my profession, be sure to find a clinician who understands public safety culture and who is very sensitive to the differences between burnout and clinical depression. Being labeled by someone with good intention but limited experience with first responders will simply generate more problems than solutions.

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