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How to Prevent First Responder Burnout: 5 Effective Methods


October 17, 2023

Over 60% of first responders reported feelings of burnout in a 2019 survey by the Journal of Emergency Medical Services. As a first responder, you often encounter situations that most people could never imagine, let alone deal with. The job’s mental, emotional, and physical burden year after year can be overwhelming.

First responder burnout is more than simple exhaustion. It’s a mental distancing from work that depletes your energy. It also makes you less effective on the job, which can affect the community you serve.

Take steps now to prevent first responder burnout. Learn the signs and follow the five tips below.

First Responder Burnout: How to Spot Trouble

The World Health Organization defines burnout as a non-medical occupational phenomenon stemming from “chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.” What does that look like, and what causes it?

Signs of First Responder Burnout

Common signs and symptoms of burnout include:

  • Physical and mental exhaustion
  • Negative or cynical feelings about work
  • Apathy, lack of motivation
  • Poor memory, distractibility, low attention
  • Heightened emotional sensitivity, irritability
  • Changes in sleep habits or quality

Burnout can also take a toll on the body physically. Workers experiencing burnout are 63% more likely to take a sick day and 23% more likely to visit the ER, according to a 2020 Gallup poll.

Causes of First Responder Burnout

When you routinely face high-stress, sometimes life-or-death situations, it’s no surprise that your work can take a toll. Along with typical causes of burnout like long hours and staff shortages, you may face unique underlying causes, including:

  • Regularly dealing with highly emotional, irrational, or even violent people
  • Putting your own life at risk
  • Encountering PTSD triggers regularly
  • Dealing with the emotional burden of what you experience
  • Lack of gratitude and recognition from the people you help

It’s a lot. Fortunately, there are steps you can take to head off burnout before it becomes a threat to your well-being and career.

5 Tips to Prevent Burnout

Since burnout comes from poorly managed stress that stems from work, the best way to prevent first responder burnout is to address stress and work head-on.

1. Take Time Off Work

Take full advantage of vacation time and PTO. Consider taking shorter, more frequent breaks – think three-day weekends – rather than longer vacations. A survey by consulting company Cornerstone found that short breaks effectively combat burnout.

2. Make Changes to Eliminate Sources of Stress

Speak with your supervisor about making changes that reduce stress at work. Can you delegate tasks that fill you with dread? Would adjusting your scheduled days or hours make a difference? Is it time to take on a different role in your workplace? If nothing changes, your burnout risk stays the same.

3. Actively Manage Stress

Proactively managing stress is key in battling burnout. High-quality sleep, regular exercise, meditation, and spending time in nature are simple ways to reduce stress.

4. Prioritize Mental Health

Regularly communicating with a counselor, psychologist, or therapist can help prevent burnout. And with the rise of telemedicine and mental health apps, it’s easier than ever to get help through your computer or phone if you can’t go in person.

5. Set Strong Boundaries and Say “No”

Setting boundaries is vital if you want to prevent burnout in the long term. You are not selfish for prioritizing your emotional, mental, and physical health. You can’t do your very best for the community you serve when you’re depleted and burned out. Start saying “no” more often, so you have the time and space to take care of yourself.

Banishing First Responder Burnout

Recognizing and preventing first responder burnout is vital. Taking care of yourself will empower you to take care of others and serve the community that relies on you every day.

Thank you for your dedication and hard work!