During the course of my career, I’ve gotten the chance to work with people who’ve been in emergency services, and emergency services only, for as long (or longer), than I’ve been alive – 21 years. People can, and do, make a lifelong career out of this. The question is…how?
Well, I have found some of these answers:
The most common finding during my interview for what makes a longer, happier, career is the work atmosphere, including how many days off the employee can afford to have during their year. Comparatively, between the three different jobs of Firefighters, Ambulance, or the Emergency Department, I was unable to find I direct correlation between the job tasks and level of happiness.
The quality of the work environment, which includes how much time off a person has, produces the largest impact on positive mental health in the emergency service field. The qualities that go into a healthy work environment are safety (including functionality of equipment), a healthy culture, a livable wage, a feeling of importance from superiors in the workplace, and time off. When an employee is subjected to overtime work, the time to “decompress,” becomes narrower. As seen in the interviews, spending time doing hobbies, being around friends/loved ones, and practicing a religion/spiritual act is crucial to decompressing and staying mentally healthy to perform job tasks. Those who work over 40 hours a week often don’t have time to accomplish this. Also, the opportunity to get enough sleep and allow yourself time to cook healthy meals dwindles.
Safety provided by the workplace is vital for mental health; simply put, a caregiver who fears for their own safety will have a more difficult time caring for their patient’s safety. This can take form in good insurance plans, proper working equipment, and a sense of security. Not feeling confident about any of these things can result in stress, and decreased work output. When selecting a place to work, ask about topics such as these and determine if the workplace can satisfy these needs. Many of you not in health care would be surprised to know that malfunctioning equipment is common in some workplaces – particularly in private ambulance companies.
A healthy work culture is also a must to maintain a healthy mental attitude. When feeling secured and cared for by a company, you can focus on unleashing your full potential for your patients. During the busy season at Children’s Hospital, for example, the hospital bought subway sandwiches for the entire emergency department. It just so happened that morning I didn’t have time to eat breakfast because I decided to sleep in at the end of a long work week. I can’t tell you how far those sandwiches went for me that day.
Put in the energy to find positive ways on how to decompress yourself. Often times, the lazy answer on how to blow off steam can be a damaging one. Turning to drinking, smoking, or eating poorly will only come to make things more difficult. Put in the effort to go out and enjoy life, especially on the days that you don’t want to, because that might be when you need it the most.
Relish yourself in the reasons why you joined EMS in the first place. Never allow yourself to forget what makes it special. Never forget that when you see a patient, no matter if it’s your 1000th time in that situation, it’s that patients first. And in that moment for the patient, we get to be a force that comforts them and heals them. Almost no one else in their life system would be welcomed, but we are personally invited. Allow yourself to continue to be receptive to this truth.
In the ideal situation, preventative actions to control stress and PTSD are better than trying to treat it when it has already happened…but the ideal situations aren’t always a reality.
It’s taken me a few years to find a person that I could truly consider a mentor, and as I emailed out the surveys used to complete this study, I eagerly awaited his reply. He is a person who is always smiling, always charming, and massively successful personally and professionally; it’s hard to imagine him ever having a bad day. I was anxious to see what his advice would be – to see what I could do to be as happy as him. I opened the email and gazed at my computer screen, and scrolled down to see that he had answered yes to almost every question that are symptoms of PTSD, per the online resource found here. A feeling of surprise washed through me, then slowly, the lesson in his response became clear. It’s possible to have both. It’s possible to have the nature of EMS effect you while you go on to live life. In no way does having PTSD from a traumatic event or feeling stressed from the job reflect on your strength as a person – in my mentors case, it certainly hasn’t had an effect on his ability to smile.
If you find yourself in a situation where you feel like you’re in trouble, or if you find yourself saying yes to the questions found in the interviews, please seek help. As stated by one of the interviewee’s, some people don’t seek help because, “they think it will make them look weak.” But I personally believe there is no greater strength than admitting a weakness. Your fellow brothers and sisters in EMS want nothing more than your safety, because chances are they’ve been caught feeling hurt too. If you’re at the beginning of your career, please don’t forget that lesson as the years go by and the call volumes go up.
In a field were death, chaos and pain are a constant, many of us accept the toll this can have as a “price to pay.” My intent with this study is to not show methods on how to block out these emotions, its methods on how to work with them. Accept the pain, process it, and leave it at the door if you can. If you can’t, then talk about it with your co-workers. Talk about it with your family. But don’t treat the stressors of the job as something that should have a wall built around it. Leave the gates on your wall open and let it comes in come in, knowing that you have enough strength inside yourself to keep going – to be stronger than it, to be healthy and to make others healthy too.