Fire Fighting in Canada

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Beware of burnout

Recognize and prevent burnout during COVID-19 and beyond

February 23, 2021
By James Rychard
PHOTO Credit: ©Randy Glasbergen

The coronavirus is creating new and unique challenges. We are navigating uncharted waters with the virus making it important to find new ways to cope and interact while looking after our mental health. Firefighters work in an environment of unpredictability.  The nature of this job, shift work issues and now being a first responder in the pandemic allows for cracks to filter into our mental reservoirs. If we are not careful our abilities to cope can become compromised. When that happens, a condition called burnout can be on the horizon. The Randy Glasbergen cartoon pictured here depicts it perfectly.

Although this cartoon has satire to it, there is also great meaning in it. It does not matter who you are, your age, your personality, or what you do for a living, we are all prone to burnout. Firefighters all the way up to the fire chief, no one is immune.  

Burnout is not just having a bad day on the job. Burnout is a unique result of accumulated work-related stress. It is a widespread problem in the working world affecting people both on and off the job. In fact, the World Health Organization (WHO) has deemed burnout a distinct occupational phenomenon. For firefighters, it can be a huge problem. Anyone who works in a helping profession, like fire fighting, are more vulnerable to the condition. Firefighters, and fire service leaders especially, can work too often, for too long, possibly feeling a loss of meaning or purpose until a point is reached where they feel like there is nothing left to give. Now, more than ever, firefighters and fire service leaders need to be extremely cognizant of what is going on in their lives and how much they choose to take on during these unprecedented times.  

A study done by Florida State University found that 46.8 per cent of firefighters say they suffer from some sort of burnout in their careers. That means for every 100 firefighters interviewed almost half of them will have experienced feeling “tapped out”. Four decades ago, the term was never spoke about. Nowadays, the condition of burnout has become part of daily conversations.  

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Burnout is a point in life where you are totally spent physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually; there is no more energy left in our “human tanks” to concentrate and focus on life. You’ve just had enough. There are three identifying factors that are tell tale signs someone is burnt out:  emotional exhaustion, cynicism, and reduced feelings of personal accomplishment. Although it does not happen overnight, the sudden drop in feelings and having a change in attitude like things do not matter any longer does.  The process usually takes months or even years to occur. However, when environments we live and/or work in are toxic, the process itself can be reached much faster. To further illustrate what the feelings can be similar to, Dr. David Posen, a physician specializing in stress management in Oakville, Ont., shares an analogy from his book “Is Work Killing You? A Doctor’s Prescription for Treating Workplace Stress”:  

“It is similar to a person moving a very heavy item like a dresser or a filing cabinet with a friend. Everything is going fine until that moment when you feel you cannot keep moving. The weight for some reason suddenly feels significantly heavier, and the looming feeling of dropping it is beginning to take hold. All of a sudden you feel the need to drop your end. You cannot explain why, there was just no strength left to keep your end up – you simply cannot go on! That is burnout!”  

Although feeling exhausted is a symptom of burnout, not all exhaustion is related to burnout.  This is an especially important clarification because feeling exhausted is a normal part of life when we exert effort.  However, when we continuously exert effort without rest is where it becomes dangerous because the body requires rest to be effective. Dr. Posen says that burnout develops mostly from prolonged and excessive stress.  But it is the combination of the duration and the intensity of the stress that makes it difficult for the body to endure. Excessive stress over long periods of time is what leads to feelings of burnout.

“Our body releases cortisol when dealing with chronic stress and too much over long periods wears us down.”  

This “eroding effect” becomes the problem; it makes stress unhealthy. Healthy stress cycles require periods of stress to be interspersed with periods of rest, relaxation, and recovery.  

Like hockey players an intense level of play cannot occur without periods of rest.  Hockey players cannot stay on the ice for long periods of time without their level of play being affected and increasing their vulnerability for injuries. When the rest, recovery, and relaxation is minimal for the amount of stress the body endures, burnout can occur.  

Firefighters typically have high ideals (in part due to the fact they are viewed as heroes by society), and they apply significant effort and energy to the work they do. They want to be their best.  Dr. Posen says that many organizations applaud these motivations, but some may unfortunately take advantage of staff, consciously or unconsciously. Further, he says that burnout can be the result of not receiving desired outcomes (rewards) for the effort being put forth. Outcomes/rewards include feelings of success, satisfaction, fulfillment, and achieving one’s goal.  When you feel that your effort is rewarded and worthwhile, you increase the inclination that more effort will continue.

When opportunities present themselves and firefighters want to add more value to the organization via committee work, projects, and special initiatives, it is important that the work done feels appreciated and/or rewarded. If not, the lack of reward can lead to more effort by the firefighter. If still no feeling of reward, the firefighter might persist with even more effort and determination. Now, a dangerous cycle is created. If the cycle continues for too long the firefighter will begin to unravel physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually.  Fatigue sets in followed by exhaustion, depression, and even despair. Worse, which adds fuel to the fire, is when the firefighter senses that their colleagues are receiving rewards for similar types of efforts that they are putting forth. The firefighter begins to feel that their efforts do not matter. Their lens becomes skewed as they view their efforts as futile; in time cynicism surfaces. Burnout is not just feeling an overload of chronic stress but also feeling that efforts do not matter.  

So, what can be done to help mitigate this situation?  Dr. Posen offers three suggestions for burnout prevention that applies to both firefighters and fire service leaders. One, both the employee and employer need to have insight and awareness of what is happening. Supervisors (leaders) need to be alert to signs of increasing stress in their staff members and regularly check in with them.

Second, have ways to maintain healthy stress levels for staff, such as cutting back on workloads, reassigning work to others, finding means to improve efficiencies, getting more help and finding the resources to make the job more manageable.

Third, modify unrealistic expectations. Remind people that they cannot do it all, that they cannot be all things to all people and that they alone cannot fix every problem. Goals need to be attainable. Making them too high or the time and energy needed to reach them is too much and can be harmful.

Firefighters are unique because they have a limited right of refusal. From recruit class on, they are trained to follow a chain of command, especially during emergency operations. Firefighters trust that the incident commander makes decisions that places their safety as a number one priority. That said, there is a natural inclination that the same sense of trust regarding a firefighter’s safety extends to non-emergency times as well. When it does, an environment of psychological safety exists. Together firefighters and fire service leaders need to recognize the three signs of burnout and have means in place for burnout prevention, such as Dr. Posen’s suggestions.  When they do firefighters can be their best versions of themselves to serve their communities.


In addition to being a firefighter and R2MR Instructor from the City of Burlington, Ont., James Rychard is an advocate for mental and behavioural health in the fire service, sitting on multiple association committees. He can be reached at jaymzr007@hotmail.com. 


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