Fire Fighting in Canada

Well Being: I am exhausted! Is this burnout?

November 2, 2020 
By Dr. Elias Markou

In the fire service you don’t have to look very far to find a colleague who has experienced job-related stress. When stress accumulates in the body, the effects build up and the body reacts. This is called burnout. There are a number of reasons this can occur. Often it’s the build-up of a series of mental, emotional, physical events that reach a pinnacle whereby the body goes into complete shutdown.

On May 28, 2019 the World Health Organization (WHO) published a landmark decision that classified burnout as an “occupational phenomenon” and not just a medical condition. WHO said, “burnout is a syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.”

WHO defined burnout using three criteria: feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion; increased mental distancing from one’s job, or feelings or negativism or cynicism related to one’s job, and reduced professional efficacy.

■ Types and Effects of Burnout
Burnout is known in the International Classification of Disease as an ICD-11. While the root cause for each person can be different, psychologists identify three types of burnout.

  1. The “under-challenged burnout” occurs when a firefighter is not feeling appreciated, is bored and is lacking learning opportunities. As a result, they may distance themselves from their work.
  2. The “neglect burnout” occurs when a firefighter feels helpless and can’t keep up with the demands. This type of burnout is avoidable when leaders are able to identify it and provide help.
  3. The “overload burnout” is the most common form in the fire service. It occurs when the firefighter is working hard for the ever elusive search for success in the fire profession. Firefighters are risking it all — their health, their family, their finances — in pursuit of success in the service and, more importantly, in life. Like a deck of stacked flimsy playing cards, this can all come crashing down in the blink of an eye.

The health effects of burnout include physical and mental exhaustion, depression, anxiety, cynicism, professional withdrawal, high blood pressure, heart disease, digestive disorders, IBS, IBD — the list goes on. Burnout is a gradual condition that starts off slow and gains momentum. Early detection is key. Training fire service leaders on how to spot the pre-signs of burnout is one step. Delivering great mental wellness training and programing in the fire service is the second prong to stamping out burnout.

Here are some key prevention ideas for dealing with burnout.

■ Make Time for Self-Care
The idea of self-care is a foreign concept to many firefighters. Firefighters are conditioned to care for others and put their needs last. Try these self-care actions:

Focus on your breathing techniques. This is a great way to calm your nervous system and help you manage the stress. Five minutes a day of quietly sitting in the morning and at the end of your day can help reset your parasympathetic nervous system.

Frequent breaks in the day can help with physical exhaustion and allow you to recharge your mind and body.

Quantify and qualify your sleep. Deep, restful sleep and a minimum of seven hours a night should be the goal to strive for.

Talk therapy: find a great support system of friends and colleagues.

■ Vitamins For Vitality
There are several burnout busting vitamins to consider incorporating. A balanced B-complex vitamin is a great way to help your body deal with stress. Vitamin C is a vitamin the body needs in times of great stress to support the adrenal gland system. Magnesium has the ability to support tense and stressful muscles and nourishes the nervous system. Nervine herbs like chamomile and rhodiola are great support herbs that have the ability to reduce stress in the body and heal the nervous system.

Warding off work-related burnout should be a top priority for maintaining well-being on the job and off.

Dr. Elias Markou is one very busy naturopathic doctor. He is in private practice in Mississauga, Ont., and is the chief medical officer for the Halton Hills Fire Department. Dr. Markou was a firefighter for six years; he has a special interest in firefighter health, is a writer and blogger who is regularly featured on television and radio and in print. Contact him at

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