Preventing burnout in paramedics


When you become a paramedic you learn to operate within a grueling work schedule filled with long hours and little sleep.

Paramedics are trained to care for others under severe difficult circumstances. They see gruesome things and are expected to deal with a different kind of trauma every time. They are taught the medical aspect of how to react to and treat people who have medical emergencies, but are they trained to deal with the emotional stresses: trauma, horrible images, nightmares and the aftermath that comes with the job?

Jessica Beale-Roberts, former Paramedic and author of Paramedic Girl, commented in an article published by The Herald on 6 May 2017: “It’s hectic out there for paramedics, especially in South Africa with all our violence and crime. Most of the time it is dangerous and yes, we did get into hairy situations.” Another alarming thing is that South African Emergency Care Workers are expected to go into very dangerous areas and are not necessarily protected by law enforcement. They have to see these terrible scenes while also fearing for their own life. According to quite a few articles and research papers, South African Emergency Care Workers also have a severe shortage of proper resources and equipment compared to other countries. This surely adds to their frustration and stress.

They keep doing what they do to help and care for people, hence, Paramedics forget to take care of their own well-being and that is where burnouts catch fire.

But why don’t people like talking about this issue? Scared they might lose their job? Paramedics might feel guilty that they are the caregivers and people look to them for help. They might feel that they are strong enough to handle these types of situations or that they have seen it all. They might think that they have become immune to the effects of traumatic experiences. It is vital to develop skills and coping methods or techniques of not just to deal with trauma and stress but to recognize burnout and get some help before it is too late.

International studies show that of all Emergency Service Workers, Paramedics have the highest rate of post-traumatic stress. It is time to do something about it. You need help too. You as the paramedic should take the first step which is to identify and acknowledge the signs. All of us are different and deal differently with situations. Something that might leave you feeling down might not have such a great impact on others. You might sleep like a baby after a gruesome accident purely because you are exhausted while others won’t be able to sleep at all. Nightmares might be taunting them all through the night. The key is to look for the signs:

Burnout starts slow and in the beginning, the symptoms are not that noticeable. Usually, early signs of burnout indicate energy and emotional exhaustion, sudden illnesses and health problems, increased social withdrawal, negativity, absenteeism, loss of focus or efficiency at work, etc. However, a common denominating symptom is the ‘don’t care’ feeling.

It is when you reach a point in your career as a paramedic where you block out all emotion and all the feelings and you stop caring about your work. You stop caring whether or not your patient lives or dies, whether or not your ambulance and equipment is working or stocked correctly. You stop caring about the onlookers or family members of the loved one, about filling in the correct administrative reports, responding efficiently and effectively to an emergency call and the list goes on. When this happens, you are already in way too deep and need urgent help. This might indicate that you suffer from post-traumatic stress and burnout.

When you are in the Emergency health care field, many think you are the hero and for that reason are unbreakable. Yes, even paramedics think this. The reality is that although paramedics who have a history of depression or are easily stressed are more likely to suffer from burnout, not one paramedic is unbreakable. It is usually the person who thinks it will never happen to me, or who lives in the illusion that he/she will save every life. Most of the times it is that paramedic who pitches up on their first day feeling enthusiastic and pumped because they think they will be making a difference every day. However, eventually this dies down and a certain reality sinks in.

If you think you are experiencing burnout, realize that you are not a weak person, just human. It can and has happened to a majority of paramedics and will probably happen again. Paramedics truly do make a difference. You just need to get help and get the skills you need to prevent and identify burnout.

Now the question remains, how to prevent and deal with burnout under paramedics? Get help…and get it soon. Prevention is better than the cure and let’s face it, in South Africa, we need all the help we can get.

The Mindspa Institute, a national soft skills training company, launched a new and exclusive full day corporate burnout/workplace wellness workshop. The presenter is Dr Maria Phalime, a qualified medical doctor who left clinical practice due to burnout. She has written about her journey in her award-winning memoir titled Postmortem – The Doctor Who Walked Away. In addition she is a qualified Integral Coach (Centre for Coaching – UCT) and a leadership development facilitator (Graduate School of Development Policy & Practice – UCT) who also gave a TedEx talk on this subject.

In this full day workshop, participants will learn what burnout is and how it impacts their well-being and performance at work. They will be taught how to recognize it in themselves and others. They will also learn the research-proven strategies to address burnout and use these to develop their personal action plan for thriving in the workplace. During this exclusive course, each delegate will receive a copy of the facilitator’s award-winning memoir.