No one likes to talk about this subject. To some it seems like an admittance of failure. Burnout. At the start of your career, you probably encountered a couple of folks everyone else said had “burnout” years before, but were just riding it out. Those “burnout” medics may have told you things like, “Get out while you can” or “This never gets any better”. Regardless of your reasons for becoming a paramedic, you probably thought they were just exaggerating. After several years, you may be thinking differently.
What IS Burnout???
Look around for information on this subject; you won’t be overwhelmed with reading material. Simply put, there isn’t a lot out there to find. Several articles have been written on burnout but none shed a whole lot of light. Different definitions come up when looking for a meaning of the actual word. To some, burnout is when you are constantly cranky, complain about every single run or job-related activity, or every conversation turns into an argument. For others, it may be a withdrawal, a quiet resignation to your situation. Much of this depends on the individual paramedic’s personality. Some of us scream, some of us cry, and some of us just shut down. The common denominator, regardless of the outward display, is that you simply no longer care. You don’t care if your truck has all its supplies; you don’t care if you write one sentence or 50 in your report; you don’t care if your uniform or truck look like junk; scariest of all, you don’t care about your patient. Not one bit. Doesn’t matter if it’s that sweet elderly lady you take in at least once a week, a little kid from the local elementary school, or some drunk who just plowed his car into a telephone pole.
Heroes aren’t supposed to be like that…
First responders are given a hat that many find too heavy to wear: the hat of a hero. That term gets thrown around and applied to first responders all over the world. True, being a paramedic gives opportunities to perform heroic acts. But I don’t think most paramedics walk around thinking of themselves in this light. The term can cause some added stress and resistance to talking about problems. No one thinks of Superman going home to Lois Lane, complaining about all the people he had to rescue. Or dreading punching the clock and starting what seems like a never-ending cycle. Heroes are supposed to be ready and willing at all times, with nothing but a sense of duty to help in their hearts. But this isn’t reality. Day in and day out, this job will wear you down. Adding a golden light around the title of paramedic does nothing but add a wall around that medic, making them feel even worse for the thoughts they may be having.
I got into this job to help people.
You wanted to help. Or maybe you like the thought of speeding off into the night, lights and sirens going. Perhaps you wanted into medicine but didn’t like the thought of being confined indoors. Whatever your reason for getting into EMS, at some point, you will become very disillusioned. Unless you only practice for a very short time before moving on to something else. Responding to people that are grown adults and should know better than to call 911 for toe pain gets to a person. Dealing with people who are in crappy situations with no way out is depressing. Seeing patients live with chronic diseases that eat away at their life wears you down. Abuse, addictions, traumatic injuries that occur out of the blue; all of these situations demand something from you. One of the most disillusioning effects is the abuse you witness of the healthcare system on a daily basis. Yes, there are people who legitimately need assistance. We aren’t talking about them; we are talking about those who truly could do differently and don’t. You struggle with the fact that you work massive amounts of OT, have a second or third job, and still struggle to pay bills. Yet you treat people every day who compound the overall problem and simply don’t care. Coming into EMS with the mentality that you are there to help smacks right into the wall of calls like: toe pain, back pain for 5 months and cannot handle it now at 3am, drank too much with friends and now has lost control of all bodily fluids, responding to the same person 5 weeks in a row that won’t leave an abusive relationship. You start to feel useless and like you are hitting your head on a brick wall. You begin to question if you ever really do any good.
I’m a Paramedic, now what?
A lot of people don’t think of the lack of professional advancement in EMS when they start out. You are young and see yourself retiring from the ambulance. Then after several years and birthdays have passed, you start to see that might not be the best plan for you. So now we get to add the frustrations of ever day life of a paramedic the stress of not seeing any room for growth. Thankfully over the past decade, more opportunities have developed to give paramedics options. But many people encounter issues like having to lose retirement if they switch. This can cause a person to feel trapped. The thought of being on an ambulance for 20+ years can cause many to run out the door.
Am I just having a bad run or am I burnout?
How do you know if you are just having a tough time or if you are actually burnout? During a tough time, you still see a light at the end of the tunnel. You know that, give it a little time, and you will shake this feeling off and be on the upside again. With burnout, you cannot shake the sense that this is it; you have hit a wall and things won’t ever change. The common factor in burnout is that you don’t care. This will show. It will be evident to others in your attitude, your actions, and your patient care. People will notice and comment. Paramedics spend enough time working together to recognize when it’s more than just a bad month. How you deal with this once you’ve had the realization depends on a few things:
- Did you ever love being a Paramedic?
- Do you have a good support system?
- Do you want to continue in this work?
If you became a paramedic because you thought it sounded cool or because you wanted something exciting to do while paying for more schooling, but never really enjoyed it, then it is probably time for a serious, hard look at your career choices. But if you ever loved being a Paramedic, if at some point you couldn’t envision doing anything else, then don’t jump ship just yet. Think of this like a marriage. At one point, there was love in that relationship. Over time, life wears down the relationship, focus is taken away, and suddenly you don’t recognize the other person or yourself. But you have invested in this relationship; you know at one point you even loved it. Going through burnout can be like renewing a commitment. You have to figure out what you loved in the first place, admit that some aspects have changed, let go of the past, and allow yourself to truly enjoy the good parts again. Yes, things have changed. It isn’t the idealistic place it once was. But it still is the one thing you cannot see yourself without. Take time away, talk to a trusted friend who understands your job and its tolls, then reevaluate.
When you hit burnout, don’t write yourself off as a terrible or weak person. It can and has happened to the most devoted and enthusiastic paramedic. And for some, it isn’t just a one-time event. Some paramedics have several experiences with burnout. Just remember that you truly do make a difference as a paramedic. You may not always see the effects of your work, but they exist.