5 Strategies to Avoid Burnout in EMS


Burnout is a risk to every EMS provider. If you’ve done this job fo’ a minute,  you know of what I speak. But if you’re new to the field, you may find burnout to be a foreign concept. “That won’t happen to me!” you say. Don’t worry, we’ve all spoken those words…and then we lived to eat them, along with a side of humble pie.

Burnout will catch up with you eventually. The 0200 toothaches. The nursing home abdominal pains. The long interfacility transports. Whatever calls you hate the most, don’t worry, you’ll get plenty of them. Combine that with long shifts, death and destruction, high stress, an unappreciative public, organizational incompetence, and low pay and you’ve got a recipe for rapid burnout.

I started noticing burnout in my career at about 8-9 years. That was long enough for all of the hero, lifesaver visions of grandeur to have long since evaporated. First, I stopped pushing myself to learn more. Then, the daily tasks of my job became mundane and unimportant. Eventually, I stopped being proud of my career. I began to hate going to work. Compounding all of that, I dealt with an employer who didn’t embrace the power that a healthy culture has on the workplace. All of these things added up over time until one day I recognized I had a raging case of burnout. But fortunately my career didn’t die. In fact it got much better. Here is what I did to overcome my burnout. Maybe these strategies will help you overcome yours or help you prevent it from developing in your career.

1.Love the job. That’s right…love this job. You know, the job that doesn’t pay you much. Makes you work every damn day of your life to scrape by a living. The same job that gets you spat on by drunk a-holes and criticized by unappreciative nurses…all on the same call! The very same job that will involve you being ridiculed by your employer for the most mundane oversight while they simultaneously fail to acknowledge all of the amazing things you do on a daily basis. Yup…that job. You better love it. Because sometimes it’s really hard to like it. If at the core of who you are, you don’t love what you do, start planning what you’ll do next.

If you’re in this career because you like the lights and sirens and all of the “hero” crap you, my friend, should quit right now. Go find something that will pay you a decent wage an allow you to have a life. Because this job isn’t about looking cool or being a hero. It’s about working hard every day.  To be a good medic, to be a career medic it’s all about preparation. Preparing yourself to be ready for those challenging calls that come infrequently. Studying, training, and studying some more. If you can’t find a love for that aspect of this job, then this will be a long road for you.


2.Find the right culture. If you work for an employer that doesn’t’ value the concept and power of “culture” you should start looking elsewhere. Culture is everything at a workplace. It can be toxic or it can be healthy. A toxic culture will ruin your career. Toxic employers look at their relationships with the employees as adversarial. They live for the moments they can tell employees when they are doing something wrong but totally ignore their responsibility to provide praise to employees when warranted.

Another aspect of a toxic culture in EMS is a lack of clinical direction. If your agency doesn’t hold its employees accountable for their clinical competency, if they brush patient care problems under that proverbial “rug”…you work in a toxic culture. You will not be provided the atmosphere to grow a clinician. Your motivation will wane as you see providers who constantly fall short of being competent fail to be counselled or disciplined for their shortcomings. You will quickly burnout in this environment. Get out….IT’S A TRAP! Find somewhere that exhibits a healthy workplace culture. Find an employer that values the employees as the backbone of the agency. These places exist.


3.Get a damn hobby! This is a career. All those t-shirts that glorify EMS as a “life” are crap. Get over it. If you want to survive in EMS, treat this as you would any career. Value it, continue to grow in it, be great at it but for god’s sake have a life outside of work. Whatever that is. Family, friends, outdoors, sports, stamp collecting….whatever. Have a passion outside of this job or it will eat you up. Between the tedium of our daily work life and the occasional horrible things we see, you need an outlet. And that outlet needs to be productive. Stay away from alcohol/drug abuse. That leads down a road of disaster that we see all too often.


4.Embrace the concept of upward mobility. That’s kind of an abstract statement, so let me explain. I’m not talking about advancing into a supervisor or management role. I’m talking about becoming upwardly mobile as a clinician. Be better than the next guy or girl. Push yourself to be the best medic at your agency. Take advanced classes. Pursue advanced certifications. Go back to school. Become an instructor in something. Strive to be the best clinician possible. If you are constantly striving to improve, you will have no time to become stagnant. And stagnancy leads to burnout. The moment I grew stagnant in my career was when I stopped all effort to be a better clinician. That stagnancy manifested and grew into burnout. Avoid stagnancy and constantly strive to be better.


5.Keep it in perspective. What’s your worst day? Is it a day with non-stop calls? You’re 6 reports down and haven’t eaten a bite in 8 hours? Or is it the terrible things you see that happen to good people? Kids sick or injured? Families crushed by an unexpected loss of a loved one? Well those things suck, no doubt. But let’s break this down.

So you’re busy? Good. Volume equates to better job security. You’re paying the bills. Plus, most, I say again, most managers want to provide you with better equipment and pay. (If you work for a toxic leader that doesn’t look out for your interests, go back and reread #2) The more busy days you have, the more revenue that is hopefully coming in. Suck up those busy days so you can enjoy the Netflix days where you’re not doing crap! If you’re stuck at a busy station and can’t rotate out until you get more seniority…welcome to the real world boys and girls. It’s called a rite of passage. I know… you’re a millennial, you don’t deal well with waiting, but trust me, it’s good for you!

You see some pretty terrible things on a regular basis, huh? I know it sucks. Seeing lives destroyed by sudden injury or illness. It can be hard. But this is what we signed up to do, right? We signed up to battle those things. But for every battle you win in the trenches, you’re going to lose many more. That is a hard reality for some. But that is why you train harder than the next person. To be prepared to sway those statistics in your favor. But still…in the end, you are going to see lots of loss. If you can’t find some mechanism to deal with that, this most definitely isn’t the career for you. If you’re feeling psychological stress over this, you need to seek out help. From your employer, from a counselor, employee assistance programs… someone or something. This type of burnout leads down a destructive road to substance abuse and suicide. Get help.

Now think about all of your good days. The sun is shining and your sitting outside at work, enjoying lunch. Or maybe it’s a slow day, and you’re rocking a Netflix marathon with your partner at the station. Possibly, you’re doing homework for school, at work, so you can hang out with friends or family later. But maybe your best days are the calls that you truly impact a patient’s life. The calls where you can say you helped saved someone.

Do you realize that most people don’t get to do those things? Most people can’t chill at work and watch TV. Certainly most people in this world will never know what it feels like to resuscitate a dying child. You get to know those things. The good days like those get you through. If you’re have a stretch of bad days, don’t worry, every last one of us has been there. Take a shift off if you need to but understand the streak will break. The rough stretch will end eventually. Feel fortunate that most people in the world couldn’t do what you do. This is a noble profession. Be proud.

Conclusion :

Burnout is a reality of our career. I see EMS personnel  with 3-4 years of experience, starting to display some of these characteristics. This career has a high attrition rate, for many reasons. Burnout will change you. It will make you despise going to work. It can lead to substance abuse and most certainly can potentially lead to you leaving a career that should be rewarding. That’s the key, this awesome career should be rewarding. If it’s not, you need to starting figuring out why. Maybe you’re experiencing burnout. These are some strategies that work for me. They have resurrected my passion for EMS and prevent me from becoming stagnant daily. Maybe they’ll help you too.

Thanks for stopping by again. Hope you enjoyed the post. Feel free to share your own strategies for dealing with or preventing burnout below. I’d love to hear from you. Until next time…. Derrick