New Year, New You: How to Avoid Burnout in the EMS Field

Posted on January 6, 2021
Tags: EMS

The role of emergency medical professionals has always been a quick, effective response in high-pressure settings. Being able to perform in stressful situations is a staple characteristic for EMTs and medics, and most take on this challenge with unwavering resolve. It’s just part of the job.

But even the most wizened and the most motivated prehospital providers will, at some point, feel the effects of what is commonly known as “burnout.” In fact, approximately a third of paramedics and a quarter of EMTs are affected by work-related burnout. This can materialize as excessive exhaustion and insomnia, dwindling interest, an increase in conflict with family, friends, or coworkers – even cynicism, anger, depression, and substance abuse. You feel like you’re being asked to do more with less, and you’re not quite sure how to keep going.

The good news is that you can, with some proactive effort, stem the effects of burnout and find new ways to energize yourself and your career. The start of the New Year is the perfect time to take stock of your physical and emotional health and make a plan to find a better balance in the months ahead.

Why It’s Important to Address Burnout in EMS

Burnout is common across many industries and jobs. Unfortunately, in the line of prehospital care, it can have drastic negative results not only on your health but also on others’ health. Burnout among providers has been linked to an increase in medical errors and absenteeism, both of which prevent a community from receiving prompt, efficient care. Even a lack of job satisfaction among providers can translate into lackluster care and urgency.

Additionally, burnout left unchecked can advance into more serious mental health issues, such as anxiety, depression, and even PTSD. First responders have long been disproportionally at risk for suffering from PTSD, with the rate of suicide among providers reaching alarming levels and becoming the subject of many prevention programs. The things that medics might see on any given call – including experiencing what might be a patient’s worst day of his or her life – can eventually build in the responders unconscious mind until help is needed.

Of course, the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic cannot be ignored, as they have drastically shifted expectations and workloads for first responders (leading some to even call EMS provider burnout the “hidden pandemic”). While most medics entered this line of work with the knowledge that some personal risk might be involved in responding to calls, the possibility of contracting COVID-19 has turned them into “frontline workers,” potentially risking their lives with each call. They are asked to do more with less, reusing PPE and operating in an emergency state for months. Additionally, the high rate of causalities and the loss of coworkers to the virus add a heavy emotional burden to an already stressful job. Managing stress during the COVID-19 pandemic takes extra effort and attention.

What You Can Do to Fight Burnout

Just like you put effort into your physical health through exercise and healthy eating, it makes sense to put effort into preserving your mental health as well. That’s the key to fighting burnout and revitalizing your vision, purpose, and motivation. Below are four suggestions to get started:

1. Schedule Time to Fully Unplug

It can be hard to make the break from work’s pace and communication, especially with our ever-connected society. Shift-work can make it even harder to find a normal routine outside of work that does not consist of merely waiting for your next shift to start. Ensure you prioritize your own time as much as you can, making an effort to do things you enjoy like hobbies, reading, exercise, and being outdoors. If you must, schedule a time during your day to check work emails, but then do your best to put the phone down, and turn off those automatic notifications as much as possible.

Additionally, it’s important to take a hard look at how much time you spend mindlessly scrolling through social media feeds. While it’s tempting, especially if your sleep is disrupted because of shift work, there is evolving proof of a connection between social media and depression. While used in moderation, social media can be a great tool to stay connected, but be aware of how much time you spend scrolling and be sure to break it up with plenty of real-world interaction and activity.

2. Find Ways to ‘Own’ Your Job

A key culprit behind burnout is a feeling of helplessness and lack of control. Maybe things are changing rapidly in your agency, or money and time are tight and everyone is being asked to pitch in more. It can start to wear on you. Rather than let yourself slip into a victim mindset, try proactively brainstorming what would make your job more fulfilling, more efficient, and more enjoyable.

Recent research has shown that an increase in autonomy is connected to reducing burnout among EMS professionals. Feeling more ownership of your career path can boost your motivation and offer things to look forward to; think about what parts of your job you enjoy most and see how you can build upon them. Maybe there is a community outreach program about which you are passionate; perhaps you’d like to organize the inventory closet or line up a non-traditional training scenario. Speak to your supervisor about ways where you can take some ownership of your role.

3. Make Community Connections

Personal interactions can make the most difficult job situation bearable, and if you’re feeling the pains of burnout, finding a good confidant might be just what you need to keep perspective. This is especially true for EMS professionals, who see and experience many things the average citizen never will. Finding someone who knows exactly what you’re going through and has been there themselves is invaluable in keeping the big picture in mind, coming up with a plan of action to address challenges, and knowing that things will eventually get better.

Consider seeking out a mentor in your agency or within your more extensive EMS network. If you are a veteran, consider taking a newbie under your wing. Some of the most valuable training moments come not necessarily in the field but around the station’s kitchen table.

4. Create Space for Yourself

If you are used to working in the role of “public servant” as many first responders are, it may be challenging to permit yourself to prioritize your own needs and interests. But the reality is that self-care leads to self-awareness, and improving your own mental and physical health makes you better prepared to care for others.

As the saying goes, you can’t pour from an empty cup, so it’s essential to make time to do things that “fill your cup.” This may mean a daily jog, taking your dog to the park, reading a good book, or turning off the phone and putting on a great movie. Spending time with your loved ones as much as you can help reenergize you as well, even if that currently means regularly scheduled Zoom calls or virtual gatherings.

Self-care can also help you process and release stress related to work. If you feel especially overwhelmed by work experiences, making time to meet with a good counselor or a chaplain could definitely be considered self-care. De-stressing mental activities, therapies, or journaling are also practical ways to take care of yourself so that you can better care for others during your working hours.

You would be hard-pressed to find anyone who has not experienced a degree of burnout at some point in his or her career. Acknowledging this fact and taking proactive steps to make yourself healthier in mind and body can lay the groundwork for a more enjoyable and productive year to come, both in the ambulance and out.

Watch the free on-demand webinar, “Managing Work-Related Stress and Burnout Amidst COVID-19” now.