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Burnout

By Rich

I feel fortunate that I’m not haunted by the images of what I have witnessed. If I don’t sleep well at night it’s due to stress at work or at home, not dark images from the years I spent working in emergency services.

I realize I sometimes abuse my past as a paramedic in my security writings, but today it is far more relevant than usual.

I became an EMT at the age of 19, and was in paramedic school by 21. By 22 years of age, I was in charge of my ambulance – often with only an EMT as a partner. In retrospect, I was too young.

People I’d meet, especially in college, would often ask what the worst thing I saw was. I’d laugh it off, but the answer was never blood, guts, or brains. Yes, I saw a lot of dead and dying of all ages in all circumstances, but for the most part real life isn’t as graphic as the movies, and professional detachment is something I have always been good at.

The real horrors are the situations we, as a species, place ourselves in. It was seeing poverty so abject that it changed my political views. It was children without a future.

Public safety officials – paramedics, cops, firefighters – and our extended community of ER nurses and doctors, corrections officers, and other support positions… all suffer high rates of burnout and even suicide. Everyone hits the wall at some point – the question is whether you can move past it.

Unless you have responded to some of the “big ones” that lead to PTSD, the wall isn’t often composed of particularly graphic memories. It is built, brick by brick, by pressure, stress, and, ultimately, futility. The knowledge that no matter how well you do your job, no matter how many people you help, nothing will change overall.

Those who can’t handle the rough stuff usually leave the job early. It’s the cumulative effect of years or decades of despair that hammer the consciousness of those who easily slip past nightmares of any particular incident.

Working in the trenches of information security can be no less demanding and stressful. Like those of us in public safety, you gird for battle every day knowing that if you’re lucky nothing bad will happen and you will get to spend the day on paperwork. And if you aren’t your employer ends up in the headlines and you end up living at your desk for a few days.

Deep in the trenches, or on the streets, there’s no one else to call for help. You’re the last line; the one called in when all hell breaks loose and the situation is beyond the capacity of others to handle. What is often the single worst thing to happen to someone else is just another call for you.

One day you realize there’s no winning. It won’t ever get better, and all your efforts and aspirations lead nowhere.

At least, that’s one way to look at it.

But not how the real professionals thrive on the job.

You can focus on the futility or thrive on the challenge and freedom. The challenge of never knowing exactly what the day holds. The freedom to explore and play in a domain few get to experience. And, in the process, you can make that terrible event just a little bit easier on the victim.

I nearly burned out in EMS at one point. From the start I knew I wasn’t any sort of hero; you don’t work the kinds of calls I did and believe that for long. But, eventually, even the thrill of the lights and sirens (and helicopters, and …) wears off. I realized that if I called out sick, someone else would take my place, and neither one of us would induce any macro changes.

Instead I started focusing on the micro. On being a better paramedic/firefighter/rescuer. On being more compassionate while improving my skills. On treating even the 8th drunk with a head laceration that week like a human being.

And then, on education. Because while I couldn’t save the human race, I might be able to help one person avoid needing me in the first place.

Playing defense all the time isn’t for everyone. No matter how well-prepared you are mentally you will eventually face the burnout wall. Probably more than once.

I thrive on the unexpected and continual challenges. Always have, and yet I’ve hit the burnout wall in both my emergency services and security careers. And for those of you at the entry level – looking at firewall logs and SIEM consoles or compliance reports all day – it is especially challenging. I always manage to find something new I love about what I do and move forward.

If you want to play the game, you learn to climb over the wall or slip around it. But don’t blame the wall for being there. It’s always been there, and if you can’t move past it you need to find another job before it kills you.

For the record, I’m not immune. Some of the things I have seen still hit me from time to time, but never in a way that interferes with enjoying my life. That’s the key.

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Comments

Mike hit it on the head in his comment.  Burn out in our field is often the result of perspective.  Security people don’t understand that OK is good enough and have a hard time accepting anything less than perfect “security”.  I’d feel pretty bad about things if I went home feeling like a failure every day too, or if I felt that my business partners “didn’t get it” and were ignorant.  If we could just realize and adopt the right outcome expectations I think burnout would reduce a lot and satisfaction would increase too.

By ds


Nice post, it applies in may areas of life.

I experience chronic headaches and migraines… which can be quite the strain. Last night while playing an online game with my wife she remarks “are you always this upbeat?!?”. The thing is, I have to be because the other choice is to just give up and find a way to die.

Like the point you make in your article, everyone will hit “the wall” eventually. This wall may be professional or personal - sometimes both. The question is for all: can we overcome *this* wall?

I think that there is far too much negative stigma attached to not being able to overcome the walls we hit. Just as we don’t “hold it against” the paraplegic for not being able to use the stairs we shouldn’t hold it against the person that can’t overcome a particular “wall” that they don’t have the skills or ability to cope with.

However, they should be encouraged to excel where possible, to find the best fit of their skills - ideally were this will also help them overcome that endeavor’s wall. After all, without such there would never have been the Paralympics.

For those that have no choice but to deal with their walls we need to give them help - even when they don’t want it. Help them professionally. Help them personally. Help them because sometimes there just isn’t any other alternative for them.

Burning out or hitting a wall happens and as you say none of us are immune. All we can do is decide how we will respond and how we will help others respond.

By Zac


Great post, Rich.

Do your best and hope for the best is my approach.

Keep moving forward.~Walt Disney

By Phil Agcaoili


Powerful piece of writing - thanks for sharing, Rich.

By Pat Bitton


Good post Rich. Thanks for the perspective.

By Mike Speas


Far too few of us have the proper perspective to survive in security for a long period of time. Great post Rich, and I’ll delve into the issue of perspective in tomorrow’s Incite. Stay tuned for that…

By Mike Rothman


And for the record, I love what I do.

By RIch


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