Imagine a “normal” day at work including:
- Seeing someone’s body become lifeless and working tirelessly to resuscitate their heart.
- Hearing the screams of a spouse who unexpectedly loses the love of their life.
- Fighting back the tears as you give a cancer diagnosis to the parents of a young child.
- Running in and out of burning buildings, wondering if you are going to return home safely to your family after a close call.
- Talking to victims of sexual assault.
- Talking to someone who is contemplating suicide.
- Seeing the aftermath of a suicide attempt.
- Being shot at or spat on when trying to uphold the law and keep your community safe.
- Helping a new mom navigate an overwhelming rush of emotions as she gives birth and welcomes her child into the world.
- Being deployed as your wife gives birth to your first child.
You rarely see a doctor, nurse, or EMT’s face overwhelmed or fearful when treating a patient. They want their patients to feel confident in their plan of treatment.
You do not hear how fearful military or police officers are when they stare death in the face. When they are faced with unexpected gunshots or violent attacks, they work persistently and assertively to protect the people around them.
When a firefighter shows up to the scene of a fire, they mask up without hesitation and begin demolishing the flames. They run in and out of burning buildings without hesitation. They treat burn victims, restart hearts, extricate victims trapped in vehicles, and allow themselves to stand in harm’s way to ensure the safety of the community at large.
It can be all too easy to overlook those in the helping profession. They show up, day in and day out, to get the job done. Even when they are faced with a dying child, rape victim, or dodging gunshots from a violent scene; they continue to respond to the calls that follow. They never know who or what the next call holds or what their patient will suffer from as they enter the scene or hospital room.
There are numerous things to consider if you are a first responder or work in the helping profession. Workplace stress can take a significant toll when you are emotionally and physically drained after every single shift. For first responders who work 24-48 hour shifts and then head to a second job immediately following their shift, it is imperative to sleep, relax, and reduce the risk of increased physical and emotional exhaustion.
It is vital to find calming activities like enjoying nature, working out, listening to music, or woodworking, to name a few. It is important for the first responders who do not sleep at work to allow their bodies ample time to rest on off days.
Being physically and mentally rejuvenated is important when showing up for a shift that might include talking to suicide victims, running into burning buildings, and talking to a victim who’s loved one is dead upon arrival to a scene. Those in the helping profession must also allow themselves to be cared for.
Emotional detachment can be all too common in first responders. When every shift is filled with hearing the cries of individuals who just lost a loved one, an anxious parent whose extremely ill child has to be admitted to the hospital or showing up to a car accident where the victim died on impact, it can be an extremely heavy burden to carry.
First responders work tirelessly to keep moving forward, answer the next call, write detailed reports without replaying what they saw and heard over and over.
Depression, Burnout Syndrome & Post-Traumatic Stress DisorderIt is often embedded into a first responder’s brain that what they see is perfectly normal and they should process the trauma with ease. Because of this mentality, first responders may suppress their feelings and try to bury their emotions, which can lead to depression, burnout syndrome, or Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Burnout syndrome can leave the helpers feeling completely depleted – physically and mentally; it is important to address symptoms as they arise.
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder impacts first responders more than the average group of Americans due to the nature of their job. Seeing death and violence every single shift can take a significant toll on one’s body and mind – especially when they are not sleeping for their 24+ hour shifts.
If a first responder is dealing with fits of rage, insomnia, excessive drinking/substance addiction, nightmares, or emotional detachment, it is important to seek the professional help of a counselor.
Establishing a Strong Support System
Peer support is crucial for first responders. It is valuable to find a group who understands the trauma and workplace stress that is being dealt with and talk through and process emotions. There is a common camaraderie in first responders to grab a drink together following a difficult call, but it is important to look out for one another to ensure that substances are not the source of one’s attempt at processing or healing.
Family support is a vital element for the first responders as they come off shift. Instead of an intrusive approach to know all of the details of every call that they responded to, perhaps it would be helpful to approach them by asking in a non-intrusive way, “How was your shift?” to see if there is a desire to converse and discuss any potential traumatic interactions.
It is key for family members to let their first responders know that they are there for them when they are ready to talk. It is crucial not to approach them in an overbearing way, but a more subtle approach.Overbearing or intrusive approaches often close off the pathways of communication when someone is dealing with processing unwanted feelings, especially when it is approached with “this should be normal for me to see,” which is easy to do when you see what they have seen.
If you know a first responder who is struggling with workplace stress, validate their feelings, let them know you are there for them, ask if there is anything you can do to help, encourage them to see a counselor.
It is key to know that the psychological wounds of a first responder may run deep. While they do run toward danger, many first responders have been in life-threatening situations, lost a colleague on the job, or witnessed a traumatic event that they have since suppressed.
When asking a first responder about their job and the things they have seen, just be aware that pressing for specific details of horrendous accidents or causalities may trigger them and be painful to relive.
Ben Nelson said, “Our first responders risk their lives to help others. The least we can do is make sure they have the resources they need to do their jobs.”
Crisis Intervention for Workplace Stress
Crisis intervention is available for first responders and their families – family and individual therapy would benefit all involved. The weight of carrying a lifeless body out of a burning building, seeing and helping a child who was sexually abused, or seeing the aftermath of a suicide victim is not an easy burden to bear.
You are not alone in this fight. It is important to allow others to care for you and to allow yourself the opportunity to process your emotions, workplace stress, and the high volume of traumatic experiences that you see every single day.
Thank you, First Responders!
To all the first responders out there – thank you for the sacrifices you make and for upholding a ray of hope for our communities when you respond every single time the tones blare.
“Firefighters”, Courtesy of Ciobanucatalina, Pixabay.com, CC0 License; “Praying”, Courtesy of Jonathan Borba, Pexels.com, CC0 License; “Relaxation Hands”, Courtesy of Rudamese, Pixabay.com, CC0 License; “Thank You”, Courtesy of Nicholas Bartos, Unsplash.com, CC0 License
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