Threat to Resilience - High-risk roles and Burnout


by Koi Monkeys August 02, 2023

People in high-stress roles, roles where there are high stakes, moral crises, trauma, and little to no flexibility, these people are at increased risk for Burnout and withdrawal. While leaving the high-pressure role may not be a possibility or a desirable solution, there are measures to take or to aim for. This brief article will suggest ways to be mindful of and encourage such actions. 

One example of a high-risk role involves those in the military, mainly if those individuals have been subject to war or moral crisis. There is abundant research and interventions regarding this population. The intense demands of military life and the contracted mission can push even the most resilient individuals to their limits. "Burnout is not selective; it can affect anyone," asserts Lt. Col. Jennifer Gillette, a U.S. Air Force Reserve psychologist.

Burnout Explained Gillette, who lends her expertise to the director of psychological health at the Air Force Medical Readiness Agency, highlights common burnout symptoms, including fatigue, headaches, muscle tension, stomach issues, sleep disturbances, overeating, and heavy drinking. Some less obvious signs are emotional disconnection, insensitivity, sarcasm, and cynicism, leading to a lack of empathy or feelings of incompetence. According to U.S. Air Force Lt. Col. Daniel Gross, flight commander at the 633rd Medical Group at Joint Base Langley-Eustis in Hampton, Virginia, Burnout is "a syndrome that manifests when one's energy reserves are depleted."

Burnout or withdrawal arises when there's an imbalance between responsibilities and tasks versus opportunities for rest and recovery. Service members are more susceptible to Burnout when their individual or unit's operational tempo increases. Nancy Skopp, a clinical psychologist at the Defense Health Agency Psychological Health Center of Excellence, advises that "when fatigue, physical and mental exhaustion, poor motivation, and emotional withdrawal become noticeable, it's time to seek guidance from a mentor or mental health professional."

Combatting Burnout Gillette emphasizes the importance of self-care in preventing Burnout. She likens it to maintaining a car: "We must take care of ourselves if we want to prevent burnout. We can't expect our cars to keep running if we don't fill them up with gas and take them in for regular maintenance".

Some self-care tips she suggests include eating healthily, setting aside time for relaxation and fun, regular exercise, developing good sleep habits, establishing firm work-life boundaries, separating work from personal life, nurturing a sense of humor, building relationships, ending toxic relationships, recognizing distress signs and seeking help promptly. 

If you or someone you know is experiencing Burnout, it's essential to consult a doctor or a trusted individual for assistance. U.S. Air Force Lt. Col. Catherine Callendar, deputy director of psychological health for the U.S. Air Force, emphasizes the importance of social support: "There's substantial research that shows that talking to someone supportive triggers positive neurochemical changes in the brain."

Practicing mindfulness can also aid in preventing Burnout by promoting self-awareness. Gillette suggests using positive coping strategies as part of a "psychological first aid kit." These strategies could include calling a friend who makes you laugh, going for a run, listening to motivational speakers, fishing, playing golf, swimming, or even indulging in calming activities such as brewing tea, hearing or playing music, having a quiet moment to yourself for 15 minutes several times a day or a few hours. 

All service members and others in high-stress roles must support their colleagues and seek help when necessary.

Resources: - mental health page - Military OneSource confidential help page - Military and Veterans Crisis Line - DHA Psychological Health Center of Excellence Psychological Health Resource Center - Centers for Disease Control and Prevention workplace stress page

Image Credit: Jane Acton | An exercise simulating a medical emergency at the Medical Simulation Training Center in New Jersey, April 14, 2022.



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