Paramedics and first responders have uniquely stressful jobs. They are on call to respond rapidly to unfolding crises, and they frequently witness scenes of violence and injury. The repeated exposure to trauma can have a serious effect on their wellbeing unless healthy coping mechanisms are employed.
Having a strong work-life balance is essential for paramedics and first responders. James Novello, a former firefighter, and paramedic from San Francisco, California, with over a decade experience, shares the six best ways in which first responders and paramedics can improve their lives by achieving a proper work-life balance.
1. Build Strong Bonds with Coworkers
Having support from coworkers (and employers) is a wonderful place to start. In order to achieve a more balanced life, it is helpful to maintain close bonds with the brothers and sisters they serve with. These individuals are able to understand the realities of the job in a way that friends and family cannot. Having peers who are simply there to talk with, or who can share their experiences, can help bring happiness to an otherwise grim day. It is likely they have felt the same thing at one time or another, especially when it comes to stressful calls. And in some cases, they can even help find the humor in the absurdity they all face on a daily basis.
Building strong camaraderie is a must in the firehouse, police station, or EMS station as isolation is never helpful. Supervisors can encourage this sense of community by supporting team building activities. Paramedics and first responders should also be encouraged to spend time with their coworkers outside of their shifts for healthy activities (not just the bar). Endurance training, scuba diving, and group trips to the desert come to mind!
2. Meditation and Mindfulness
First responders and paramedics, like all workers who experience difficult and stressful conditions, may find the ability to meditate and practice mindfulness very helpful. Yes, it sounds hokey, but really it works! And now there is science to back it up, not just middle-aged hippies from San Francisco’s Excelsior district claiming to be enlightened. Mindfulness, a form of meditation where participants are encouraged to accept all of their thoughts and feelings rather than focus on keeping certain feelings shut out, can help bring a better sense of balance.
Mindfulness and breathwork can make a person more resilient during stressful situations as well, and is even taught in paramedic and police academies. It can reduce pain and distress and alter levels of brain chemicals that affect these feelings. Since many first responders experience chronic pain due to the physical nature of their jobs, this aspect of mindfulness meditation can positively impact both the body and the mind.
Studies show that mindfulness can be as effective as cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) in relieving stress, anxiety, and chronic pain symptoms. In fact, CBT is a helpful addition for many and their wellness plan.
3. Outside Activities and Hobbies
Firefighters, police officers, and paramedics may find participation in volunteer activities to be helpful, in SFFD it was often toy donations around Christmas. Getting out of oneself and the feeling of helping others actually contributes to an increase of dopamine. You would think this is innate in the jobs that first responders do, but it is different when being paid because you are not doing it Purely out of the goodness of your heart and to help your fellow man. Hobbies can be equally important, as first responders’ identities are often woven into their career and there is too much emphasis on the profession itself. Hobby activities bring an extra sense of meaning to a person’s life and relieve stress incurred in the workplace by refocusing the individual. Giving back to the community has strong emotional and physical benefits.
Woodworking and photography are examples of hobbies that provide a creative outlet and change focus away from work, while doing so without any negative consequences. Junk food and cigarettes come with unwelcomed side effects and a temporary increase in dopamine, which ends up being more harmful in the long run. When performing a complex task that requires hours of focus, a sense of satisfaction is created that genuinely increases the dopamine response. Additionally, people who participate in hobby activities are less likely to experience chronic pain. And if these hobbies include a moderate to intense physical aspect or routine socialization, they also have better heart health and a longer lifespan.
Relaxing with a favorite hobby can also be an excellent means of bonding with children or spouses. Relationships with children and spouses risk being put second to the job, especially when work has been stressful or busy. Sometimes it may take actively prioritizing time with family in order for it to become a healthy routine. But well worth it, as family is one of the most important parts of a balanced life.
4. Exercise and Wellness
Exercise has an incredible effect when attempting to achieve a better work-life balance. Exercise helps the body release endorphins, such as the “feel-good” chemical dopamine, and this promotes overall wellbeing. Studies in neuroscience show that regular strenuous exercise significantly increases dopamine and is a major lifestyle component that leads to happiness. Often people with stressful or strenuous careers fall into unhealthy habits such as overeating or screentime, which temporarily increase dopamine levels. However, these unhealthy activities require more and more of the same unhealthy activity in order to maintain the higher dopamine level that was temporarily created. Alternatively, exercise creates a temporary dopamine deficit (during the physical activity) which the body compensates for afterwards, which naturally increases dopamine. The unhealthy activity causes the body to make less dopamine due to the body’s response to the increase of dopamine from the unhealthy (but pleasurable) activity. A dopamine deficit caused by a difficult activity leads to higher dopamine in the long run, and does not require More of that activity in order to maintain higher dopamine levels. Once this is known, it becomes simple to use the body’s own regulatory system in order to feel good!
Exercise will make someone become more resilient physically and mentally so that they will be capable of performing during the strenuous situations that first responders face so often. It will undoubtedly make a first responder’s job easier and help to prevent the onset of chronic pain and injury.
5. Spending Enough Time at Home
According to James Novello, paramedics and first responders keep punishing schedules. They may work night shifts or be separated from their friends and family for days or weeks on end. Despite a busy work schedule, there must be an active effort to maintain social and family relationships, even if that means scheduling events or calling out sick when being required to work for weeks without a day off. Time for self-care may also need to be scheduled as it is a typical mindset for a paramedic or first responder to put others before themselves.
A healthy part of anyone’s life is to spend quality time with their children – to be present and interact. Lack of sleep and preoccupation with the job can affect this quality time so appropriate tools and interventions must be used in order to maintain this essential component of a person’s life. Unfortunately, first responders have a higher divorce rate than most, so it is important to bring awareness to the root cause of this trend in order to affect change. Many paramedics and first responders are not aware of the source of such issues, are not able to identify problems they may have, and simply do not know how remedy the problems that are building in their lives. Maintaining awareness of one’s needs are crucial to success – and this is often not something that can be done alone.
6. Professional Assistance
First responders greatly benefit from peer support whether or not they have an acute issue. Peer support usually comes in the form of department members who have training that is tailored specifically to help paramedics and first responders. The number and frequency of traumatic exposures are usually too much for any one person over the years without help in some way (healthy coping mechanisms or professional support). Members of peer support teams will determine if the points mentioned in this article are lacking while evaluating the need for outside help.
And while first responders may like to think of themselves as superheroes, they are of course only human. Stigma exists in these fields which makes acknowledging any shortcoming incredibly difficult. Often first responders will continue to work with devastating injuries because they love the job, and losing it would be unimaginable. It is part of their identity. Even if there is a fixable issue, most will deny the existence of any problem rather than face something that could mean the end of their career. Because it is difficult to ask for help, peer support should be a routine part of first responders’ environment in order to foster a healthy work-life balance.
Helping Paramedics and First Responders
Without a strong work-life balance, paramedics and first responders will not be at their best, and as a result their care and performance will likely suffer. While they may feel tremendous stress and pressure to continue to perform, they must be vigilant in maintaining their home and family life if they want longevity in their career and life. First responders and paramedics should be encouraged to participate in as many of these life improving techniques as possible.
James Novello believes in the importance of work-life balance for first responders. Paramedics and first responders play such a critical role in our society that it would be foolish not to address the preventative maintenance that will help these servants be at their best. For these fields in particular, it is crucial to not only encourage these points, but to dive deeper and discover all that can be done.