Dispatches: The wheels on the bus
Burnout: we’re all familiar with the term and many of us have experienced working ourselves to the point of exhaustion. It happens when we’re trying to do it all while simultaneously ignoring the subtle signs our body is sending to indicate that we’re about to crash. Instead we push harder by working longer hours, not taking breaks, having multiple tasks on the go at the same time, and ultimately failing to accomplish much of anything, or at least not to the fullest extent we’re capable of.
You might experience symptoms such as not sleeping well, not eating well, brain fog, inability to make decisions, and physical symptoms such as feeling anxious, short of breath, and lingering headaches or tension in the neck and jaw, not to mention the feeling of complete and utter disconnection from your work, or even worse, from yourself.
I’ve been through this a few times and thought I’d finally broken this pattern after my last bout of it in May, but I’ve realized that burnout has the uncanny ability to sneak up on you in other areas of your life outside of work.
Burnout can happen when you’re doing too much of anything in your life, or rather, overcompensating in any area of your life. Mental, emotional and physical wellness in the fire service isn’t just about you when you’re at work, it’s about you, period.
Your life is like the four tires on a vehicle, if there’s one area of it that’s out of whack, it creates wear and tear on the other areas, and if that one area happens to burnout — or blowout — then you’re not going anywhere fast.
I’m writing this while on my way to Edmonton with my family on a road trip. There’s seven of us and by day seven and I can safely say that my lofty vision for our trip has officially derailed.
My husband, our 20 and 21-year-old daughters, two of their friends, my 87-year-old mom and the two dogs left Ontario in mid-August for Alberta and we’ve all been staying in our fifth wheel trailer. That wasn’t the original plan, mind you. The kids were going to sleep in their tent, which would’ve meant a little more space for everyone, but when we got to the campground in Okotoks, Alta., we found out that the tent sites were all closed due to the washrooms being closed due to maintenance issues that occurred while closed due to covid.
We decided we’d make the best of it (since the trailer sleeps eight anyway) and I was quite optimistic that everything would be fine, but perhaps I was somewhat off in my assumption because all that togetherness was a recipe for the wheels coming off the bus at some point.
I realized while lying awake at 3:00 am that I’d gotten myself into the same situation I’d experienced with work by trying to do it all. I felt totally and utterly burnt out because I’d been worrying about the girls all feeling comfortable and taken care of, about being the easygoing wife, the doting daughter, the dog whisperer, the figure-it-outer/Google searcher when things came up, and finding time to complete some work with looming deadlines on top of it all. The thing is, I was the one putting most (okay, all) of this pressure on myself. I couldn’t help but ask myself what had happened to have this trip feel like it had gone so wrong.
Since relocating to Marathon, Ont., a year and a half ago, I’ve been missing my family, friends and “back home” a lot. Working from home for the last year also meant that I have very little interaction with anyone during my work day. I was experiencing a loneliness way beyond what I even realized.
When covid restrictions lifted and we were allowed to travel across provinces again, I wanted to do our family trip to Alberta that we do every summer. We picked a date that worked for everyone and when the girls asked if they could bring friends, I said, “of course!” I invited my mom along too, as we usually take her on our trips out west and I knew she’d love to see our family out there again.
I didn’t care about anything other than getting my family together and hitting the road. It was very short sighted of me.
Remember the tire analogy? I was running low in family time and social connection so I overcompensated by trying to get it all in at once. (I tend to be an all or nothing type of person so I was oblivious to what I was setting myself up for).
Just like overdoing it at work by trying to do it all yourself due to a deficit in another area of your life, I overdid it with our trip by trying to make up for a rather tough year by cramming (literally and figuratively) everyone and everything into one trip. I was trying to be all things to all the people. I’ve done this at work by taking on extra duties, working extra hours, thinking I had to do it all and prove myself, and then I’d totally crash from all the go-go-go.
A deficit in one area of your life, or of your most basic needs, isn’t something that you can fix by loading everyone up and hitting the road for 12 days. Just like you can’t fix work by working harder or fill a void in your personal life by working more. Life is about finding balance and being honest with yourself about your needs, mental, physical, emotional, social, and spiritual. Do a self-check today and see if there’s an area you’re running a deficit in, or overcompensating in so you can avoid the wheels coming off your own bus.
Jennifer Grigg has been a dispatcher, volunteer firefighter, inspector and instructor in her three decades in the fire service. She is also a certified body language coach and speaker. Contact Jennifer at firstname.lastname@example.org or jennifergriggcoaching.com.