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Burnout: What agencies and first responders need to know

21 Jun 2021 2:06 PM | International Public Safety Association (Administrator)

By Sarah Guenette, Learning & Development Manager, Calgary Community Standards, IPSA Mental Health & Wellness Committee Member

Because of the pandemic, burnout is now felt on a global scale. There is no doubt that the world is facing a common burnout from coronavirus restrictions. Burnout, though, is not a new phenomenon created by this public health crisis.

This article focuses on burnout in the workplace and what agencies and individuals can do to take meaningful steps to combat its effects.

What is burnout?

Burnout has been officially recognized by the World Health Organization as an “occupational phenomenon”: “Burn-out is a syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed. It is characterized by three dimensions:

  1. Feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion;
  2. Increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one's job; and
  3. Reduced professional efficacy.”

Burnout occurs in several professions, including healthcare and public safety.

In addition to the other occupational hazards specific to emergency services, burnout is something that can affect a first responder’s work life and home life. It is a condition that can creep up on people unnoticed. It is something that continues to add to cumulative stress already experienced by first responders.

Burnout is caused by the long-term presence of cortisol in the body. While cortisol is beneficial to have in emergency situations, over time it can deplete the body’s energy reserves as the body and brain never can rest.

The causes of burnout are varied, but it is often created by chronic workplace stress that has not been appropriately managed. This could be related to heavy workload, lack of breaks or time off and short staffing. In the first responder environment this is exacerbated by a shift work schedule and exposure to traumatic incidents.

Measuring burnout

In a 2020 paper on the emotional effects of vicarious trauma on 9-1-1 dispatchers, the author cited a study done in the Los Angeles Police Department 9-1-1 Center. It was found that 43 percent of the participants were experiencing high levels of burnout. Interestingly, this was cited as being far higher than other frontline professions.

To complete this study and others on the occurrence of burnout, researchers use the Maslach Burnout Inventory (MBI). Through a series of questions they rate participants on a scale of emotional exhaustion, depersonalization and reduced personal accomplishment. This tool is used to measure employee perceptions of their workplace and associated stressors. Once the degree of burnout is determined there is a further measure to assess what is contributing to the burnout: Workload, Control, Reward, Community, Fairness and Values

In the case of 9-1-1 dispatchers an “overall feeling of being misunderstood and underappreciated” was found to be prevalent. There was also a higher perceived lack of control in that profession that contributed to both burnout and vicarious trauma.


According to experts, common symptoms of burnout are:

  • Physical exhaustion: Chronic fatigue, insomnia, constantly falling ill, and weight gain or loss
  • Emotional exhaustion: Anxiety, depression, and anger. Displaying more pessimism, cynicism and detachment.
  • A drop in productivity: Forgetfulness, inability to concentrate and pay attention. These can actually increase the workload if allowed to continue.

What agencies can do

There are things that agencies can do to mitigate burnout in first responders. Exposure to stress and trauma are inseparably linked to the role of first responder. However, even in this fast paced, adrenaline driven environment there are some things that can be done to reduce the impact of burnout.

Take breaks: Leaders need to promote an environment within their teams where it is acceptable to take breaks as needed. They can model this by taking breaks themselves and by letting employees see them taking this step for their own health. It quickly has a negative cascade effect on a team if the leader promotes the notion that you should work non-stop and needing a break is a sign of weakness, laziness or lack of dedication. Leaders need to promote a health work environment by encouraging breaks/breathers when operational workload allows for it.

Sick leave: Agency leaders also need to work on reducing the stigma related to taking sick leave. Taking sick leave can sometimes be perceived as laziness or weakness. Agencies should be encouraging people to take time off when they need it. One survey showed that 84 percent of respondents have gone into work when they are sick. 33 percent of the respondents said that their employer created a culture of working when you’re sick. This may be exacerbated in a first responder environment by a perception of being perpetually short staffed and teammates having to pick up the slack created by the absence.

Vacation leave: Taking vacation time should also be promoted by leadership. Employees should be encouraged to take paid time off wherever possible rather than banking it out. The lure of the extra income may be tempting, especially to junior members of an agency, but the time away from the job is much more important.

Team building, support programs: In addition to modelling healthy behavior and promoting time off as needed, agencies can also offer support to assist with some of the factors that contribute to burn out. Programs like health and fitness challenges can promote a healthy lifestyle while leading to some friendly competition and team building. A robust peer support program and employee assistance program provides employees with somewhere to go to discuss their stressors and access resources.

In the case of the 9-1-1 dispatch profession mindfulness training was recommended as a way to increase their perceived control over their work role. Even though they can’t control what calls come in, they can control the influence that those events have on them through mindfulness techniques.

What individuals can do

As individuals, first responders can take positive steps to mitigate the stress factors that may lead to burnout in their lives:

  • Step away from the screens. Take regular quick breaks from phones and computers throughout the day, even if it’s just stepping away for five minutes. This not only helps with psychological health, but also helps to prevent eye strain.
  • Move and stretch. Long periods of time sitting in a vehicle or in front of a computer can contribute to stress on the mind and body.
  • Get outside. Fresh air and being out in the sun are proven to be beneficial in reducing stress. It is important for first responders to do this even on days off, no matter how tired they are.
  • Healthy eating habits can mitigate the effects of stress. When possible pack a healthy lunch and snacks for your shift, rather than ordering fast food. Drink plenty of water to stay hydrated.
  • Take breaks with teammates. Social interaction is known to increase positive energy.
  • Play games. Something as simple as completing a crossword or word search can stimulate your brain with something other than work.  
  • Listen to music.
  • Take vacation leave. While the payout or roll over may be tempting, that paid time off is there for a reason and should be taken.
  • Stay home when sick. Taking a break early when needed to recover can prevent more long term sickness/exhaustion down the road.
  • Commit time to activities that are enjoyable and distract the mind from work stressors – hiking, biking, reading, arts and crafts, gardening, exercise, etc.
  • Physical exercise. Research shows that being physically active may help to reduce or prevent burnout.
  • Preserve a social circle. It is incredibly important to have people to talk to, people who can be trusted. Try to maintain friendships that were established before becoming a first responder as this prevents “work talk” from dominating social events.  

About the Author

Sarah Guenette, M.A., is the Learning & Development Manager for Calgary Community Standards. She oversees recruit training and continuing education for 9-1-1 call evaluators, bylaw and animal officers, business licensing inspectors, livery inspectors and animal shelter services employees. Sarah has a background in 9-1-1 and was a call evaluator, dispatcher and operations manager for over 10 years. She has overseen the Psychological Health and Safety portfolio and the Peer Support team for Calgary Community Standards since 2013. She is passionate about creating and maintaining a healthy workplace for employees. Sarah is also the proud wife of a Calgary Police Service Officer.

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