Handling Stress And Burnout As A First Responder

By Joseph Hunter, M.A., First Responder Wellness Program

The daily stress and constant exposure to life threatening situations that first responders encounter can lead to burnout. They also have to face the physical strain of working long hours and getting very little sleep. In addition to burnout, handling the pressures of the job can eventually lead to drug and alcohol use.

Burnout is a feeling of extreme exhaustion and being completely overwhelmed. Due to their exposure to distressing situations, first responders have a higher level of burnout and fatigue. Plus, those who work at disaster scenes can encounter a secondary traumatic process, which leads to flashbacks and PTSD.

Why is burnout a common career killer for first responders?

  • Stress of the calls
  • Long shifts
  • Too many shifts
  • High call volume
  • Too few people on the job
  • Dealing with difficult people or patients
  • Facing risks that lead to anxiety and depression
  • Feeling they have to appear invincible
  • Stress from PTSD

Due to the physically demanding nature and high stress levels of these careers, first responders are prone to increased drug or alcohol use. The images they see can cause PTSD and other stress disorders. To cope with these issues, they may turn to drugs or alcohol for help. Unfortunately, self-medicating can make the problem worse and starts a disastrous cycle of increased use and worsening anxiety or stress.

Signs of drug or alcohol abuse for those on the job include:

  • Difficulty concentrating or focusing
  • Difficulty making decisions
  • Struggling to recall specific details
  • Needing assistance with basic tasks like paperwork
  • Experiencing memory lapses
  • Appearing distracted

When the stress and burnout of the job starts to creep into the life of a first responder, these tips can help keep it at bay:

  • Get enough sleep
  • Eat well and stay hydrated
  • Work out regularly
  • Do activities like yoga, massage and meditation
  • Talk to a therapist
  • Wash up when leaving work (wash away the day) or create another ritual to help leave work behind
  • Take time to be alone and reflect
  • Practice your spiritual beliefs
  • Take time off when you need it
  • Connect with others in the same career
  • Limit time working alone
  • Take time to journal

Many first responders avoid treatment due to the stigmas of the issues they face. They also worry about the negative consequences they could face at work. However, ignoring these problems can only increase stress levels and allow them to grow. Know that you are not alone, and specialized treatment help is available for the unique burdens that first responders face daily.

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