Work-life balance for a fire fighter isn’t easy. Long, shift work can keep you away from home for days on end. The same intense rush of heart-pounding adrenaline that helps you stay sharp on the job often brings extreme lows, leaving you physically and emotionally drained. To make matters worse, staffing shortages could mean unexpected overtime, holdover or recall for duty. Time set aside to relax with your spouse and children can often be cut short. As a fire fighter, taking care of yourself while being a supportive partner and parent is a tricky balancing act. Maintaining a loving family life and structure with such a demanding career isn’t simple — but it’s always worth it. These five tips can help you stay focused on what’s important and achieve work-life balance while still serving your community.
Practice stress reduction techniques. Stress helps you make quick decisions on the job, but it can complicate life outside of fighting fires and responding to emergencies. Sitting on the couch on your days off may feel like it will reduce your stress, but it won’t. Take time to talk with family and friends, exercise and meditate when you’re not at work. These activities will help you relax, unwind and shift your focus toward the positive things in your life.
Remember that family milestones only happen once. Most fire fighters don’t think of their job as way to make money — it’s a calling. You’re likely deeply invested in the work that you do, and eager to prove your dedication to yourself and your team. In the moment, a big call, a last-minute training opportunity or the chance to teach a coworker a new skill can feel difficult to pass up. But if you’re forced to choose between a commitment you made to your family and going the extra mile at the station, choose family. There will always be another fire to put out, another training class to attend and another chance to show your leadership. But there will never be another first day of school, third-grade field trip to the zoo or tenth wedding anniversary. Cherish these moments, for yourself and your family.
Introduce your spouse and children to your fire fighter family. This may seem counterintuitive to achieving a balance between work and family life, but it’s important. As a fire fighter, you probably spend more hours with your coworkers than you do your family. During these long shifts, you’ve formed close friendships with your fellow fire fighters. You’ve experienced life and death together. These people are more like brothers and sisters to you than coworkers. Think about how you might feel if your spouse formed a similar familial bond with another group of people. You’d probably want them to introduce you to the people they care about so deeply, right? If you had little–to-no contact with your spouse’s “second family,” you’d likely feel disconnected from one of the most important parts of your partner’s life. The next time you have a day off, take a trip to the fire station with your family. Show them around the station, the fire truck you usually drive, your work gear. Make sure they get a chance to know the fire station and the men and women you work with. Invite one of your coworkers and their loved ones over for dinner. When you take steps to make your family feel like part of your firefighting clan, you help them feel more included in your life and the work you love.
Take time away from work. Firefighting is one of the most emotionally and physically demanding jobs a person can have. There will always be people in trouble, but you won’t be able to save them if you’re burnt out from working long shifts with no rest. Take vacations when you can, and enjoy the time you spend with your family. Unplug. Shut off your cell phone and avoid checking your emails. By fully focusing on your loved ones, you can appreciate the life you have outside of work.
Take time to reflect on and communicate your feelings. No one would ever claim that the daily experiences you face are easy, simple or uncomplicated. The reality of life-and-death work is that you’re going to witness tragedy on a regular basis. It’s difficult to keep these experiences separate from your home life, but it will be impossible if you never reflect on them or try to understand their effect on you. When you find yourself feeling upset, angry or frustrated, try to take the time to understand your emotions before lashing out. If this means carving out quiet, alone time for yourself, do it. Communicate clearly and honestly with your family — they love you and try to understand as best they can. Some days it will be harder to confront your demons than others. Some days, it will feel impossible. But making the extra effort could be the difference between fostering a close, loving connection with your family and building up walls.
A happy fire fighter family is possible, but only by doing what you can to make sure that you and your loved ones feel safe and supported. This includes taking care of yourself. Traumatic events can’t be shrugged off with a joke or dulled with a drink. The things you experience on the job affect you in immeasurable physical and psychological ways. Asking for help doesn’t make you weak — it makes you strong.
If you find yourself reliving traumatic events, lashing out at family and friends or turning to substances for comfort, we can help. The IAFF Center of Excellence for Behavioral Health Treatment and Recovery provides evidence-based care for addiction and mental health conditions exclusively to IAFF members. Contact us today to get the help you need.