When you have a job as taxing as a first responder, it can be common to experience burnout. Dealing with the emotional distress associated with the responsibility of a firefighter, law enforcement officer, or emergency medical technician (EMT) is not always easy. Many first responders don’t allow themselves enough time to recoup after stressful situations and care for their physical health or emotional well-being. This often leads to burnout.

What is Burnout?

In the 1970s, American psychologist Herbert Freudenberger described “burnout” as the consequences of severe stress and high ideals in “helping” professions, such as first responders, nurses, and doctors. Burnout is when someone reaches an overwhelming stress peak, leading to emotional distress and exhaustion. Burnout is most seen in the workplace due to the never-ending stress and pressure of today’s work culture, regardless of occupation. Working can be emotionally and physically exhausting, whether you’re a waitress or a nurse, a police officer, or an office manager. Every job is stressful in its unique way.

First responders typically experience a different type of burnout than the average person. Not every day, you encounter the traumatic situations and accidents that a first responder is exposed to. The impact that is hearing and seeing the things that first responders see is traumatizing and is not easily forgotten. First responders must protect their community and keep them safe, and they will often run themselves to the ground. This responsibility is rewarding and can be draining when not in moderation.

Everyone needs an emotional and physical break, but only some take it as often as they should. When we don’t give ourselves the freedom to take a step back from our daily lives and rest, we will reach a peak of distress and eventually experience total exhaustion—burnout.

Symptoms of Burnout

The most common signs and symptoms of burnout may include:

  • Feeling helpless and defeated
  • Constantly feeling exhausted
  • Always stressed out and on edge
  • Feeling sad or depressed
  • Starting to hate your job
  • Lack of motivation
  • Easily irritated
  • Trouble sleeping at night
  • Constant headaches
  • Weakened immune system
  • Gastrointestinal (stomach or bowel) problems
  • Using/abusing drugs or alcohol
  • High blood pressure
  • Blurred vision

Dealing with burnout as a first responder is especially difficult because you often feel like you can’t take a break or even afford to. Often, first responders will avoid getting the treatment they need or taking a break because they fear the stigma that comes with it.

Ways to Avoid Burnout

If you’re noticing yourself starting to regularly feel physically and emotionally exhausted, unable to focus, or disregarding your well-being, burnout may be the cause. It’s best if you can prevent burnout from happening in the first place, but if you’re currently dealing with it, you’ll need some healthy strategies to manage it.

Prioritize Your Mental Health

Your mental and emotional health should always be your priority. We tend to put it on the back burner, and it’s why so many of us are emotionally exhausted, frustrated, and distressed. Taking care of your mental health shouldn’t feel like a checklist you feel pressured to do daily. It should be doing things you enjoy for yourself, whatever that may look like attending a therapy session or practicing mindfulness meditation, going for a walk or a run, or spending time with people that encourage you. Allowing yourself time to rest and reset.

Take Care of Yourself

Taking care of yourself ties into taking care of your mental health. When we feel taken care of, we feel good about ourselves, making us happier and healthier. When we feel burnt out, letting ourselves go a bit is common. Even the most minor things can make us feel significantly better after doing them, cleaning up your space, cooking a healthy meal, going to the gym, or doing something that makes you happy, drinking lots of water, and talking to a friend.

Find a Balance

Knowing all you need to do to get where you want can be overwhelming. Implementing healthy habits and new strategies doesn’t have to happen all at once, and it shouldn’t. Finding a steady balance is almost impossible when we do too many things simultaneously. Pick a few things to focus on that would best suit you and your schedule and see how it impacts your life. You’ll notice a significant difference in your overall health and well-being in a few weeks or months. Don’t lose hope if you don’t see or feel a difference immediately. That may also mean those strategies might not work for you, and it’s time to try something different. Finding a balance takes time—be patient while figuring it out.

Seek Support

You can never have too much support or encouragement in your life. Whether it’s your coworkers, family members, spouse, children, or friends, you must have supportive people who will be there for you. The emotional toll of being a first responder can be intense, and it can be challenging to get through without a support system.

If you need a robust support system, there are many options for you to receive the support you need. Whether through in-person or online support groups, chatlines, or counseling, there’s always someone there for you.

Mental Health Resources for First Responders: