Some high-stress, life-or-death, jobs drain us quicker than others. Hostage negotiators, Emergency Medical Teams, law enforcement, fire fighters, ER docs and staff, first responders, military combatants, on and on. Even if you’re in a people helping profession (doctors, nurses, teachers, therapists, case workers in homeless shelters, counselors, mediators, pastors, and attorneys) you might be giving out more than you’re taking in. Which could mean burn out, compassion fatigue, and getting stuck in negative emotions. The following strategies will help prevent debilitating stress and other symptoms of burn out.
Symptoms of Burn out
- Restricted social life: Few if any close friends with whom we can have fun, confide, get recharged.
- Cynicism: Dark, moody, negative, pessimistic thoughts replace our formerly positive outlook.
- Irritation: “I laugh when others share their problems with me. They have no idea WHAT I GO THROUGH!”
- Anger: Lack of sleep, poor diet, and a sedentary life style leave people in high stress jobs “on edge” more than usual.
- Feeling trapped: “I want to quit/move/retire but I can’t.”
- Isolation: When co-workers, bosses, clients, patients, support staff, and people in general get on our nerves more than usual we’re headed into burn out.
- Emotional instability: Symptoms include thoughts of, “I hope I don’t wake up tomorrow,” suicide, depression, debilitating anxiety, and lack of physical energy due to chronic negative thinking.
- Job dissatisfaction. “I started out loving this job but now I hate it. I’m counting the days until I can get out of here.”
- Family complaints: “Your job gets your best; we get the leftovers.” “You’re getting grumpier and grumpier these days.” “I hardly ever see you smile anymore.”
- Cynicism. If we work with incorrigible, high conflict people we’ll be tempted to judge all people as incorrigible and ready to pick a fight—bosses, co-workers, clients, patients, customers, politicians, management, neighbors, relatives, etc. etc. etc.
How often do bosses offer classes, coaching, or workshops on improving job skills? How often do bosses offer classes, coaching, or workshops on preventing debilitating job stress?
Emotional erosion in high stress jobs (especially law enforcement)
What begins as healthy survival strategies on the job—distrust, cynicism, and wariness about people who could do others harm—morphs into a worldview where everyone is suspect even off the job. The result is chronic mistrust, hardness, and unforgiving.
Hyper vigilance prepares the law enforcement officer to be instantly ready if/when someone breaks the law. They must be “on” during work hours to serve and protect. That one time they let their guard down could mean life or death. All situations are potentially lethal until proven otherwise. The officer on duty is equipped with a steady stream of adrenaline keeping him/her alert, ready for action. They feel alive, perceptually keen, and quick-witted.
But when they take off the uniform and badge there can be an emotional let-down. They swing from alive, alert, energetic, involved, and happy, to being tired, detached, isolated, and apathetic. This shows up as:
- Vegging out as a couch potato
- Ignoring phone calls
- Isolation from friends
- Unwillingness to engage in conversations or activities not related to work
- Checking out
- Tunnel vision on TV, videos, games
- Procrastination for must-do chores
- Numbing with alcohol, drugs, affairs, buying stuff
- Disengagement from your children/partner
- Little or no time invested in hobbies that used to give us joy
- Trouble responding to normal conversations at home
- Using the day off to catch up on work related tasks
- Basing one’s identity, worth, and/or significance on the job
Like a roller coaster, the high stress job sends people from the heights of an adrenaline rush, to the crash of adrenaline withdrawal. Instead of recharging batteries during off hours, the burned-out worker stays numb thus depriving themselves of renewal, refreshment, and re-creation.
How to even out the highs and lows of the emotional roller coaster
- Wean yourself from “on duty” adrenaline by going cold turkey when “off duty.” When it’s our day off erase all thoughts about work. Turn off the work phone. It’s just like a vacation only 24-48 hours instead of 2 weeks.
- Be ruthless with time management. When you’re not at work BE INTENTIONAL about family, hobbies, engaging in life enriching activities—volunteering, church, social clubs, etc.
- Recognize that the drain we feel when we get home isn’t necessarily b/c our families aren’t doing their job to cheer us up. We may have built a wall around our heart making other’s encouragements roll off our back.
- Don’t blame. When home life fails to recharge our batteries, the temptation is to either avoid home, or work overtime b/c at work we get that adrenaline buzz, or blame home for not “being supportive or understanding.”
- Rebuild your identity apart from the job. List the areas of life that used to give you joy: goals, beliefs, sports, interests, values, hobbies, friends, spirituality, other.
- Make a list of all the other roles you have besides your job: son, husband, boyfriend, daughter, wife, girlfriend, mother, father, brother, sister, friend, citizen, volunteer, hobbyist, etc.
- Take control of your life. Tell your job, “You’re not the boss of me.”
- “If the job becomes your life, and you don’t control your job, then you don’t control your life.”
- If making decisions at home after work is hard, choose to make the decision before you get home. (“What should we eat? What should we do tonight? When should we discuss where we go on vacation this summer?”)
- Schedule a weekly “calendar planning night” where you choose what upcoming activities are a priority.
- Make it a priority: time-off hours are for you to do what energizes you. “Me time” is crucial to well-balanced living.
- Conduct an interview with loved ones asking, “How can I be more present in your life? I need ideas.”
- Practice thought control, meaning, when not working don’t allow your mind to ruminate over work stress.
- Engage in physical fitness. When we sweat we flush stress hormones out of our system.
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