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Finding Happiness in Public Safety

Finding Happiness In Public Safety

We’re all familiar with the burnouts in our agency. No matter what they’re called – salty, veterans, gruff, fried – the central features of their personalities are, we think to ourselves, mostly the same. The questions that aren’t usually asked, however, is how they got where they are mentally, what they can do to help themselves, what we can do to help them, and how we can prevent ourselves from getting bitter even though we mostly see the downside of humanity every day. Let’s explore.

Chipper Chipmunk, I’m Not
Nobody expects you to be happy all the time when you’re at work. There are going to be aspects of every day that suck, because they’re outside of your control – maybe it’s a call for an abuse situation, or the person who had your cruiser before you didn’t fill the gas, you’re at 1/8th of a tank, and you just got dispatched to sit on a MVC scene for three hours. Things happen.

As a wise man once said, however, “why worry about the things you can’t change?” That’s as true of public safety work as it is anywhere else. Didn’t get that promotion? Not in your control. Call went south due to the choices of the suspect? Same. Saw something really messed up because you happened to be the one assigned to see it? Ditto.

What’s important to remember is that while we don’t control these things for various reasons, what we can control is how we react to them. Losing sight of this is often what leads many people down the road towards saltiness – we start to take things personally, incorporating them into how we view ourselves, rather than realizing that much of what we have happen on the job does, in fact, stay on the job. Recognizing our humanity and dealing with trauma are critical, of course, but it’s when we start to build even more trauma or bitterness on top of what we react to that we really get in trouble.

Serious Squirrel, Not All the Time
Where I’ve seen the most people get into the most trouble is when they stop realizing that there are parts of their job that they do, in fact, enjoy. Chances are those parts are what got them into the career in the first place, but it’s easy to lose sight of them when you’re seemingly constantly faced with bureaucracy, hostile members of the public, and the rest of the downside of the job.

Misery does, in fact, love company, and we perpetuate the effects of that downside through the fact that complaining about it, or pretending to be hardened to it, is almost a mandatory part of public safety culture in many areas. (I’ve always wondered why the salty veteran is the one the new guys look up to – it’s not always due to respect for competency, and why do we want to become hardened and gritty anyway?)
If you look at the people who are the most respected in nearly any agency, however – no matter if it’s law enforcement, corrections, fire, EMS, or something else – you’ll find that they are also most often the people who have maintained their humanity while improving their competency and skill through experience. These folks understand that they signed up to help others, and that it’s not only serious calls that have that effect on someone else’s life, or their own… yes, that’s right, when you help others you do also help yourself. If you recognize that fact and let it happen, that is. Many of us don’t – we lose track of the good we do, and the humor in the circumstances we are sometimes called to.

Perspective Panda, I Should Be
PTSD is, in part, a result of the bad things piling up without outside perspective, or the benefit of the good we’ve done, entering into our mental self-image. That pile can only get so high until we can, understandably, no longer maintain our footing atop it, and so we begin at first to slip, and eventually, to fall. Fortunately, there are ways to catch ourselves.

Step one in this process is to forgive the little injustices that you’re subjected to daily. Ask yourself how much impact that insult, or slight, or whatever, really had on your life in the long run (or even the short run beyond a few minutes after it happens.) Focusing on these things is a complete waste of time, so start forgiving them when they happen, and let them go, lest they start to pile up. While you’re at it, start making a practice of noticing the “good” little things that you were probably missing while you were in Negative Nancy mode – their influence, too, can be cumulative.

Step two is to start talking. No, no, not about that piece of candy that you took from your friend in second grade – your BI already has that one down in your file anyway. What I mean is that it’s harmful to isolate yourself for whatever reason you do it… humans are social creatures for a reason, and supporting each other is what’s led to our survival as a species on the whole. So, open up a bit and talk to people around you. Despite what it may feel like, everyone does not, in fact, suck, despite how cynical you may have become based upon what you’ve seen people do to each other. The only way to show yourself that that’s true is to re-engage with the good side of the world, instead of letting yourself be forced to only meet with suffering etc. through being sent to it on the job.

Step three is to forgive yourself for anything that doesn’t go perfectly, be it in the past or in the future. Wearing a shield means to some that we should be perfect, and while it’s important to work to be the best at your job that you can be, underneath your uniform you’re still a human being, and you will make mistakes. Don’t make them worse by focusing on them so much that you don’t actually learn from them – kicking yourself has a place, but it should be limited and small in scope.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, reconnect with your outside life if you don’t already do enough of it. “Saving lives” is not the only thing that we are as people, even if we see the job as a lifestyle. The more you’re willing to explore and feed the other parts of what make you who you are, the better your life will be on the job as well as off, and the less stressed you will be. In the end, we are all working to live, to use the stereotypical statement – so make sure that you’re doing it. Through friends, we know ourselves, and through a full life comes the best that the world has to offer.


Greg Bogosian is certified as a Reserve/Intermittent Police Officer by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, and spent twelve years working as an EMT-Basic, including four years as a field EMT and dispatcher for the City of Boston EMS. He was additionally a member of a Federal medical disaster relief team for ten years, with experience responding to the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, and the pre-deployment of resources for Hurricane Ike. Greg currently has a passion for educating public safety professionals about matters which impact their lives every day, and welcomes feedback and suggestions in the spirit of ensuring that best practices make it out there for all to benefit from.

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