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Surviving the LE Burn(out)

If you feel so empty
So used up, so let down
If you feel so angry
So ripped off, so stepped on

You're not the only one
Refusing to back down
You're not the only one
So get up
 

Lyrics from “Riot” by Threes Day Grace

Professional burnout strikes all LEOs and the most important thing you need to know is you’re not the only one, so get up!

When burnout sets in it often cuts us to the core because it affects our mood, self-esteem, productivity, and how we approach the day.  It creates dissatisfaction in our job, our playtime, and in our relationships.  It attacks who we are and, when you are a LEO, this can be especially dangerous because being a cop is more than just a job, it truly is who you are.  It is a profession that becomes more than just an identity but even a lifestyle.  In us vets it starts off as a life passion that is honorable and there is pride in answering the call of duty.  There is pride in doing a job for which many are considered unfit; only those who are deemed psychologically sound and physically fit are selected to serve and protect. 

So the question needs to be asked, how then can such an honorable job cause such heartache?  And why is it happening to me?  I’m one of the strong, after all; one of the chosen and select few.  This job must not really be for me, or maybe I fooled myself into thinking I’m stronger than I am.  And if that thought process is left unchecked it can further lead down to a road of destructive and cynical conversations in your head that start off with…

I’m a loser.

I can’t wait to get home to have that beer to take the edge off.

My wife and kids and friends don’t appreciate me; they are ungrateful and only want something from me. 

I don’t want to be around anyone anymore so I’m going to do what only makes me happy (which is basically nothing because when we are burned out activities that used to give us pleasure are all of a sudden listless).

The world is filled only with jackholes. (and sometimes this extends not only to those you try to serve and protect but begins to extend to those you work with).

As Mike tells many LEOs, when professional burnout sets in it will often feel like a clinical depression.  And in my profession the biggest piece of advice we give people who are burned out or depressed is to get up and start moving today because people do not just wake up and are all of a sudden in a good mood; people who have happiness make choices that create happiness.  But when a person finds he is feeling overwhelmed, stressed, anxious, sad, frustrated, irritated, peeved, or angry for a lengthy period of time they often fall into the pattern of repetitive poor choices that lead to a negative energy and mood.

For instance, even if I am not burned out and I wake up on a Sunday and choose to stay in my pajamas until 3pm, watching an endless stream of crappy TV while sitting on the couch eating a lot of carbs and foods filled with sugar, I’m going to feel like crap and will look back on my day feeling like I wasted it.  I will regret all the things I could have gotten done.  I will feel empty because I made choices that gave me negative energy.  But if I get out of bed, eat a healthy breakfast, exercise, take care of my hygiene needs, and get some things done around the house, I will feel good about whatever activity I choose to do next because I’ve earned it. 

The secret to reversing the signs of burnout is choosing activities that create good feelings.  It is the repetitiveness of choosing good behaviors that create positive feelings.  So in essence it takes work every day and being intentional about taking care of you emotionally, physically, and psychologically in order to survive this career because burnout will set in at some point.  As stated in the last article (linked below)

Professional burnout is a usual and customary response in any profession where a person has the opportunity to give too much of their personal self at the job.  It is characterized as a state of emotional, physical, and mental exhaustion caused by excessive and prolonged stress.  It begins to reduce your productivity leaving you feeling cynical and resentful until eventually, if not reversed, it will make you feel like you have nothing more to give. 

The good news is climbing out of burnout is achievable once you put three steps into action:

Identify

Every so often - let’s say once a week - ask yourself this simple question:  “How am I doing?  Am I feeling happy, angry, sad, frustrated, stressed, and/or overwhelmed?  Am I having fun at my job in and in my life?  Am I still enjoying the people who really matter to me?”  It is important on a regular basis to identify what is going on inside of you so that you know what needs attention.

Admission

Once you figure out that something is amiss and that something in your life feels off, admit it to someone verbally.  Don’t make it a random facebook post or tweet about the jackholes on the street who are dumber than a box of rocks, or that your kids are spoiled and ungrateful; this will only give fuel of your burnout.  It also does not have to be a long, touchy feely “Lifetime Network moment” but more just a simple conversation where you tell someone who is close to you that “My mood & attitudes are not the same as they used to be and I think I’m burned out.”  That simple admission can have a big impact because it begins the emotional release of what is being pent up inside which is imperative to healing.

 Action Plan

The last step, which is often the most difficult, is to take the insight you have gained and to translate it into specific behaviors that will elevate your mood and attitudes.  And the action plan needs to be very personal to you.  It consists of choices that create happiness in your life in the long term.  Choices that Mike & I are intentional about when one of us is burned out are:

  • Having time scheduled on the calendar with friends who are fun and positive. 
  • Always having a vacation scheduled where we leave the cities we work in so we can get a mental break.
  • Learning something new because it stimulates the brain and enhances the mood.
  • Volunteering in something that does not use one of our job skills.
  • Engaging in self-care activities such as exercise, eating right, massages, regular doctor visits & regular sleep patterns. 
  • And following a core belief we live by of Work hard….Play harder!  Having time scheduled to have fun is key for us.
  • Feeding our spiritual self.
  • Taking time to be alone to think and reflect.
  • Consider changing the routine of what you do at work.  Mike does this by periodically creating new goals and developing new skills, even if it all falls under his role as a patrol officer.

Burnout is going to happen.  The challenge is whether you overcome it, or let yourself be overcome by it.  The choice really is yours.  So get up!

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