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Emergency First Responders Burnout (What We Can All Learn From it)

What is Burnout?

Burnout is a feeling of exhaustion caused by constantly feeling swamped.

It is the result of excessive and prolonged emotional, physical, and mental stress.

Signs and symptoms of burnout

  • Feeling helpless, trapped, and defeated.

  • Detachment, feeling alone in the world.

  • Loss of motivation.

  • Increasingly cynical and negative outlook.

  • Decreased satisfaction and sense of accomplishment.

There are many ways in which these symptoms can manifest themselves, including:

  • Having trouble focusing on everyday tasks

  • Reduced job performance

  • Inadequate sleep

  • Loss of interest in normal activities

  • Poor nutrition

Burnout is common among first responders; nearly 18% of EMS providers experience burnout and half of all firefighters experience burnout along with its associated symptoms. Shall I mention the police officer shortage due to police leaving in droves?

It isn't medically diagnosed. However, if you don't recognize or treat burnout, it can negatively impact your physical and mental wellbeing. So how can we avoid burnout?

Get enough sleep:

Stress at work can lead to burnout if you aren't getting enough sleep.

First responders are notorious for not getting enough sleep. Shift work does not help in this regard, but it doesn't help if we put off getting healthy amounts of sleep on our days off. Sleep well and prioritize it.

Learn the importance of Leisure:

In my post, The Importance of Leisure, I discuss that leisure is not a break from work, an absence of activity, or idleness. No leisure is an attitude of mind, a contemplative attitude, and it is not only the occasion but also the capacity for steeping oneself in the whole of creation. Do not let your days off be distracted by busyness void of any meaning, "idleness". In my post, you will find that this also leads to the lack of proper sleep. Leisure, as I explain, is more than a simple notion of self-care and rest. Leisure disposes the person to encounter beauty and truth, and to wonder about ultimate meaning and belonging (Vitz, Nordling, Titus, 2020). Here, we learn to avoid the "work for work's sake" mentality that leads to burnout and gives work-life a depth and wealth of meaning.

The vision of the beautiful, as Plato says, causes the soul to grow wings.

Whenever a true value affects us, whenever a ray of beauty, goodness or holiness wounds our heart, whenever we abandon ourselves in contemplative relaxation to a true value that comes within our presence -- so that the process of frui, of the creative ripening of its experience within us becomes possible, so that that value may penetrate us whole and elevate us above ourselves -- a certain actual change (which is, in itself, transitory) is produced in our being, which, however, according to the height of the value that affects us and the depth of our actual response to it, will leave permanent traces far outlasting our actual experience. By this spiritual nourishment, our very essence will be changed and, as it were, leavened. (Hildebrand, 2001 p.230).

In other words, when we allow ourselves to be transformed by what is good and beautiful in authentic leisure we will be left with its permanent traces that will aid us in our work life. We will become more disposed at seeing the true value in our work with new vitality. We may begin to see again how we help contribute to the health of individuals, the well-being of local communities, the enrichment of civic culture, and the common good of all people. We will be less likely to burnout and build up our resiliency to the hard and sometimes ridiculous non "emergency" calls.

Finding meaning and purpose in your job leads to greater resiliency. Burnout can then be likened to losing meaning, purpose, and identity. Much of this has to do with external factors, such as being bombarded with non-emergency calls, and lack of sleep, but our philosophy of life plays a major role in this as well. For instance, those who think work and labor are the entirety of life.

Find a Hobby:

Hobbies are a great way to spend your time away from work while you unwind and avoid idleness (the enemy of resiliency). Very much like leisure, hobbies help us open ourselves to reality, a school in receptiveness to life. Hobbies nourish our sense of wonder and get us out and beyond self. When we enter into these things we naturally enjoy we find opportunities to live in the moment, enriched by our reflective participation in some small portion of reality, and therefore learning to open ourselves to the whole. This opening up can lead to the enrichment and transformation in other states of our lives, and when we learn to live parts of our lives with joy, this joy permeates other aspects of our lives as well. For more on hobbies and how they can lead to flourishing, check out this post.

Find Good Friends:

Psychology has long emphasized the need of good friends for mental health and happiness. But what kinds of friendship build resiliency? Aristotle talks about three different kinds of friendships in his Nicomachean Ethics: utility, pleasant, and virtuous. I talk about these kinds of friendships to help parents know when their children are capable and ready for dating. Friendships based on utility are friendships based mostly on the mutual benefit unifying them. Most of our work relationships fall into this category, and they are not necessarily bad, but they are the most fragile of all friendships. Once the other person is of no more advantage to me the friendship will be no more. The second is pleasant friendship which is based on the pleasure the other brings me. You see the other person as the cause of some pleasure in yourself. What primarily unites you is the good times you experience together. These friendships too fade when any real adversity or lack of pleasurable experiences trickle into them. Virtuous friendships are the friendships that build resiliency. It is what Aristotle believed to be the fullest form of friendship. These friendships are not based on what you get out of them but based on the two friends willing the good of the other void of any self-interest. Both friends stride for higher goods while aiding the other. It is these higher goods that unit the two. Sadly many people go through life without experiencing virtuous friendships. Having a balanced circle of friends with one or two close friends will aid in your well-being and offer room for professional growth, but that is only if it is a friendship based on virtue, which will give you the character strengths and the virtues needed to overcome all the obstacles that lead to burnout.

As you consider these options, keep an open mind. Try not to let a demanding and difficult job keep you from seeing the far greater rewards and happiness that comes from the involvement of the whole person, mind, body, and spirit!

Odell Terrell

Odell Terrell is a mental health counselor in Greensboro, NC. He graduated with a MS in Counseling from Divine Mercy University in Arlington, VA, and places an emphasis on working with spiritual integration, adults and adolescents, trauma, family and children, and grief and loss. Odell received his undergraduate degree from the University of St. Leo's in St. Leo Florida, with a degree in Psychology. He has spent his last 15 years working in the field of emergency services. It is in working with people in emergency situations, both patients and first responders, that Odell has learned how to deal respectively with people in crises mode, helping instill a sense of hope and healing. Odell is happily married, for 17 years, and is the father of 9 children and brings a wealth of knowledge and experience to his family and child therapy practice.


Hildebrand, D. V. (2001). Transformation in Christ. San Francisco: Ignatius.

VItz, P.C, Nordling, W.J, Nordling, Titus, C.S (2020) A catholic christian meta-model of the person: Integration with psychology & mental health practice Sterling, VA: Divine Mercy University

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