Overcoming EMS Burnout

Yeah, It’s been a ride…
I guess I had to go to that place to get to this one
Now some of you might still be in that place
If you’re trying to get out, just follow me
I’ll get you there

– Rapper Eminem, I’m Not Afraid, Recovery

I’ve been there.

Sure, I’d like to say that I was always a positive, proactive and optimistic EMS employee but that isn’t the case. I’ve been through periods of burnout. More than once to tell you the truth.

I know what it’s like to dread getting up in the morning and going to work. I also know what it’s like to feel like you aren’t valued by your employer. I’ve been through phases where I just didn’t care about the service that I worked for or the quality of the care that I provided. If they don’t care, why should I…right? I know what it feels like to be a cog in the machine, replaceable and unimportant.

I’ve been to those places and I’ve come back. I’ve come back stronger than I was before.

If you’re in that place right now, first let me say a heartfelt, “I’m sorry.” I know where you’re at. I’ve felt the disillusionment and frustration. Hang in there. EMS still needs you. You still have something meaningful to contribute.

Now let me give you a few ideas for how you might get back to where you need to me.

1) Stop working overtime shifts. (Refuse if necessary.)

One of the unfortunate side affects of burnout is that it often comes coupled with a belief that the solution lies in working more shifts. For some individuals, their non-stop work ethic may have been a major contributing factor to their burnout in the first place. For others, the overtime may be a way of hiding from the reality of their situation.

Our tendency to drive our EMS workforce to its limit is one of the naughty little secrets of EMS that we tend to hide from outsiders. We avoid talking about it in management circles. When vehicle accidents and clinical errors rear their ugly heads, there’s an unspoken rule that fatigue and burnout shouldn’t be considered as possible contributing factors. If you name the ugly truth you might bring the whole system to a halt.

Your employer may have designed a system that will allow you to work yourself to death (if you are willing). You need to say no. When you say no to non-stop shift work, you say yes to your life, your friends and your family.

Let go of the idea that you need to work 90 hours a week in order to have all the stuff you want. You don’t need nearly as much stuff as you think you do. Convince yourself that your life is far more important that your stuff. Your time is the most valuable thing you own. Spend it well.

2) Reconnect with old friends.

With a little more time on your hands you may want to find those people who used to fulfill and enrich your life before you became an EMS zombie. You can probably think of one or two folks who you let sip away over the past few years. Maybe you’re embarrassed to talk to them now because you’ve ignored them for so long. They would love to hear from you.

Quit reading their Facebook updates and actually reach out and connect with them instead. Make some plans. Share your life.

Old friends have a unique quality that coworkers and associates just can’t replace. Your old friends know you differently. The not only know who you are, they know who you’ve been. Because of that, they can see who you are trying to become. Old friends can help give you a unique perspective on your life. Value them; they’re worth it.

3) Have a mentor outside of EMS.

I emphasized this in my e-book, The Non-Conformist’s Guide to EMS Success. I’m sure a bunch of readers didn’t really get it at the time. But from a place of burnout it will probably make much more sense.

Mentors are important, but a mentor inside your workplace is only going to mentor you about your work. Find someone with the life that you want and have them be your life mentor. (And there needs to be something in it for them too.) This person should be someone who knows nothing about EMS. I’m serious. The more they know about EMS, the more inclined you will be to discuss your job with them and not talk about the really important things in your life.

Your mentor shouldn’t be asking you questions about how well you’re doing in your ACLS class. They should be asking you questions about what’s happening in your life. How does this new thing fit into your overall life goals? Are you doing the right things to get to where you want to be in five years? If you’re burned out, it may be time to find a new mentor.

4) Spend time with your family.

If you have a mother and father, brothers and sisters, wife and children, you may need to reconnect with them as well. They may need some time to get reaquainted with your non-zombie self. They’ve undoubtedly been affected by your burnout and there are a few things you need to say to them. Go have those conversations. Start with something like this, “I know that I haven’t been as available as I should have been for the past few months (years?) but I’m going to start changing that right now and I hope you’ll help me.”

Sometimes, life is about having difficult conversations. You need to go have those conversations with the people you love.

5) Go on a mission trip.

This seems rather specific, but nothing has ever done more for my basic appreciation of my life than going on a mission trip and helping impoverished people in another country. It should be a mandatory experience on everyone’s bucket list. There are countless lessons that you’ll learn if you decide to pack up and go build houses or perform basic medicine in a third world country. Here are a few:

  • You’ll recognize that your problems aren’t nearly as significant as you might think.
  • You’ll learn (or relearn) the restorative power of helping others.
  • You’ll see your life from a larger perspective
  • You’ll make new connections with amazing people.
  • You’ll remind yourself that your organization doesn’t collapse if you don’t show up to work every day.

6) Exercise.

Another unfortunate side effect of burnout is that we tend to move our bodies less as we feel the exhaustion of burnout. Eating Twinkies at the corner Quickie-Mart at 2:00 AM isn’t going to help your mood. Moving your body will.

There’s an old parenting trick to stop your children from crying when the are hurt or sad. You stand them up and ask them to look up at you. Then you ask, “What’s wrong?” The child will undoubtedly try to look down when they begin to answer, but you remind them, “Hey, look up here at me. What’s wrong?”

Have you ever noticed how hard it is to cry while you’re looking up? Try it sometime. Your body position has a huge effect on your mood. You can change your mood right now by simply forcing yourself to sit up strait and look forward.

Moving your body is essential to improving your mood. If you feel like you can’t bear to show up for another shift on your ambulance, schedule a workout before your next shift. Nothing huge. Don’t go crazy. Just move your body.

7) Avoid other burned out people.

Burned out people attract each other like magnets. They make little burnout clubs and they validate each others burnout. They talk about burned out stuff and they agree with each other about how much everything sucks. Nobody in your burnout club is ever going to help you feel less burned out. They need you to keep feeling just as burned out as you are right now so they can feel better about themselves and their burned out state.

If you want to get back to a place of fulfillment, you’re going to need to cancel your membership in the burnout club.

Focus your time and energy on people who are doing good things. They are the ones that you want to align yourself

8 ) Play.

If you’re burned out, your first reaction may be, “But I don’t feel like playing.” Feelings follow actions. Play first. Then feel.

Do whatever it is you do when you play. You know what it is. Do it whether you feel like doing it or not.

9) Leave.

This idea seems to give people such anxiety. The idea of simply moving on is so terrifying to some folks that they are willing to endure all kinds of misery instead of just moving on to something else. There are thousands of EMT and paramedic jobs across the country.

Opportunities for EMS personal rain from the sky. If you’re willing to seek additional training, you can earn decent money. If you’re willing to travel internationally, you could bring in some serious cash and see some parts of the world most folks will never encounter.

Leave doesn’t necessarily mean quit. Take a vacation. Go on a sabbatical. Switch to another division or operation. Request  a voluntary six month furlough. Take on a new position. Just do something to get out of the work situation you’re in right now. It isn’t a failure to realize that you are in a situation that you didn’t want to be in and something isn’t working. the only real failure is showing up to work every day, doing the exact same thing, thinking the exact same thoughts and expecting to eventually feel differently about it.

Life is change, whether you like it or not. You can choose to take charge of that change, or you can be at the mercy of it.

Comments

  1. Insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.
    -Albert Einstein

    Just about sums it up! Thanks for the great post!

  2. PS. Do you think you could possibly include any links or reliable sources for international EMS travel and missions trips? Thanks again!

  3. Im sure im not the only person who reads this and thinks “Yep, this definetly sums up where I’ve let myself get to at the moment”

    Thank you for the oppertunity to step back and think about whats really important.

    Like Josh, I’d also be interested in any missions that could use my basic EMS skills.

  4. Steve Whitehead says:

    @Josh Thanks bro. I’ve thought about creating just such a resource but I’m a little hesitant just because of the scope of the project. If I can carve out the time, I think it would be a great idea.

    @Jared I think it happens to a lot of us at one time or another. I’m glad so many people like the idea of a mission trip. This may be worth diving into in more detail. the important thing about burn out is knowing you can come through it and be stronger.

  5. Steve Whitehead says:

    Great link Becca. Thank you!

  6. That burn out club can be a hard group to avoid….

  7. The burn out club is 90% of the people I work with wow they are dragging me down please don’t make me go back to work. How do I try and point this out to them without making things worse?

  8. The mission airfare scheme from some major airlines is the result of an innovative marketing strategy meant to persuade more number of people going on short term or long term mission trips.
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