Recognizing and Addressing Burnout Before It Burns You
May 17, 2022
By Annie Patterson and Dr. Anna Courie
First responders – including volunteer firefighters – face physically, mentally, and emotionally taxing work. It’s the nature of the job, which consistently has you putting the needs of the community before your own. This often exposes emergency responders to potentially threatening situations. And the effects of the constant and continuous exposure to these stressors over the course of a fire service career will start to pop up in different aspects of life.
Many first responders experience increased stress, depression, and anxiety following exposure to critical incidents. Reports show that about 85 percent of first responders have experienced symptoms attributed to mental health conditions. And first responders experience depression and PTSD at a rate of up to five times that of the general population.1 Demanding schedules, threatening conditions, and mental, physical, and spiritual stress can contribute to job burnout.
What is burnout?
The World Health Organization defines burnout as an occupational phenomenon that results from unmanaged chronic workplace stress. It’s characterized by the following three dimensions:
- Feelings of energy depletion and exhaustion
- Increased mental distance from the job or feelings of cynicism or negativity related to the job
- Reduced professional efficacy2
Burnout is also an umbrella term, covering three main types: individual, interpersonal, and organizational.3
Individual burnout results from a person placing high standards on themselves and the subsequent feeling of failing to meet those standards. Interpersonal burnout refers to the compounding stress one experiences at work with the addition of a difficult coworker, fellow volunteer, or boss. Finally, poor organizational culture and extreme demands can cause organizational burnout. Such demands can make a person feel as though they aren’t meeting the proper standards in their job performance.4 Burnout can result from a singular type or from a combination of the three. To mitigate the effects of burnout, you need to identify the type(s) of burnout so you can combat the effects.
Recognizing the signs of burnout
Burnout can contribute to personal dissatisfaction, decreasing job performance, and can be a reason people leave the fire service. But you can learn to recognize the signs and manage it with healthy habits.
According to the CDC, the major signs of burnout include sadness, depression, apathy, being easily frustrated, irritability, blaming of others, feeling indifferent or lacking feelings, isolation and disconnection from others, poor self-care, feelings of exhaustion or extreme tiredness, being overwhelmed, and feeling like a failure and that nothing they do can or will help.5
While many of the signs of burnout may sound similar to what anyone would experience after a particularly stressful day of work, it’s caused by prolonged stress. And it’s often not triggered by a singular event, unless that event stretches over a period of time.
Burnout can also present itself as physical symptoms. These include increased instances of heart disease, type II diabetes, high blood pressure, and an increased vulnerability to illnesses.6 If you’re experiencing any of the physical, mental, or emotional symptoms listed above, see a doctor or a mental health professional to determine the best way to address and treat the symptoms.
What can you do to mitigate burnout?
The experience of burnout can vary from one person to the next, but there are general mitigation techniques you can try in order to handle job burnout.7 It’s important to consider all of the options when it comes to handling burnout, as there is no “one size fits all” option.
The most important step is to evaluate your options. Take a step back and evaluate what parts of the job are leading to burnout. This could be through an interactive process with your supervisor. It is also important to seek support. This can be from coworkers or from friends or loved ones. Support and collaboration with people can often help people cope with burnout. Social support structures facilitate feelings of connectedness, purpose, gratitude, and joy — all of which help mitigate symptoms of burnout.
If your department or employer offers any sort of employee assistance program, this can be a valuable tool. Relaxing activities, such as yoga or meditation, can help you deal with the effects of burnout, especially when done surrounding a particularly stressful event. Regular exercise is important, as well. It helps to offset the physical effects of burnout and has a positive mental benefit. Finally, it is important to practice mindfulness. This allows you to be more aware of what you are experiencing and feeling at any given moment.
Resources for first responders
First responders face unique challenges and stressors, so it is important to seek out resources that can help you understand and address the unique challenges you face. The FirstNet® app catalog has several apps that can help with the mental, physical, and spiritual burdens facing responders, and some of the symptoms of burnout.
- ResponderRel88 is an app that allows first responders to anonymously connect with others working in the field.
- The Better App9 focuses specifically on mental health, as well as improving sleep. It offers an emotional needs checklist that works to identify specific areas of your emotional and physical wellbeing that can be improved upon.
- Better Stop Suicide App10 is an app designed to tackle the growing problem of suicide by offering resources that focus on emotional health.
- Lighthouse Health and Wellness11 is an app that provides 100% confidential health and wellness resources at no cost to first responders. An agency code is required to access this resource. New agencies can request access codes at lighthousehw.org/contact-us.
The National Volunteer Fire Council also has a Directory of Behavioral Health Professionals that lists local providers ready and able to assist firefighters, EMS providers, rescue personnel, and their families. The directory is available at www.nvfc.org/phfd. The International Public Safety Association offers a prerecorded webinar specifically looking at burnout through a public safety lens.13 It offers a closer look at how to identify burnout, as well as what you can do to alleviate it. Access the webinar here: https://register.gotowebinar.com/recording/4771623569122864899
Your communities need you
While mental health and burnout may not be topics people want to talk about, it’s important to continue to address them.
By making these a more normalized topic of discussion, public safety organizations are supporting their employees, volunteers, and the communities they serve – helping to ensure that those responding to calls are performing at their best potential. While first responders are there to serve the communities, it is up to the communities to serve them, as well, by making sure they provide resources and opportunities to combat burnout for those who need it.
Annie Patterson is a project/program management specialist with the FirstNet Demo Program. She is a passionate advocate for first responders because she has seen first-hand how selfless and willing to help others they are. She believes that it is important to advocate for those who dedicate their lives to helping others in difficult circumstances. Dr. Anna Fitch Courie, director of responder wellness, FirstNet Program at AT&T, is a nurse, Army wife, former university faculty, and author. Dr. Courie has worked for over 20 years in the health care profession including bone marrow transplant, intensive care, public health, and health promotion practice. Her area of expertise is integration of public health strategy across disparate organizations to achieve health improvement goals.
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