Confessions and lessons of a first responder workaholic
Five strategies to find a lifestyle that allows you to balance your career, health and relationships
By Jay Fitch
Finding balance between work and home has always been a challenge for me.
The seeds of this socially sanctioned addiction were sown back in high school when I jumped up from the dinner table to answer a call as a volunteer firefighter.
As my career developed, “off-duty” interruptions became the norm. As an EMS chief, when the pager went off during church, I quietly slipped out the back door. I once even took a date to an MCI while on the way to dinner. Not a surprise, it was a first and last date.
As a young working father who was also going to graduate school full time, I struggled to spend quality time with my children and finish my required homework before collapsing into bed each night. Work was totally demanding. I often felt I wasn’t doing enough and was behind on projects, despite 12-plus-hour office days. At home, I felt like I couldn’t be the kind of father or husband I should be. Both parts of my life were competing against one another, and neither got my full attention as exhaustion set in.
In my ideal world, I would have productive workdays and spend the other half of my day with friends and family. Unfortunately, I learned there is no perfect work-life balance but that I could improve my equilibrium over time.
Here are several strategies that work for me:
1. Finding the right situation
Finding a position I was passionate about was the first step. If you find your job is draining you, and you find it difficult to do the things you love outside of work, your balance is off. And, if you are working or living in a toxic environment, working for or are in a relationship with a toxic person, or you truly don't love the job or person you’re with, it is time to find a new job or relationship.
2. Prioritizing health
Stress-eating at the station or office and the lack of regular exercise impacted my physical condition and emotional well-being. I’ve always been a bit overweight, and it’s been easy to blame that on my public safety career. Prioritizing your health doesn't have to consist of radical or extreme activities. It can be as simple as daily “me time” and accomplishing some low-impact exercise. Just taking a brief walk at lunch or each evening before supper can be a good starting strategy. My learning is that making healthy choices is a commitment that requires attention in each stage of life.
3. Using technology wisely
I’m never far from my cell phone, but I’ve learned I don’t have answer every text or email instantly. When a family member answers a long text or takes a call during meals, it’s a clear indication that things are out of balance. The nature of our work requires an occasional emergency call during meals, but as a general rule, I’ll glance at a text or email and use a one button response indicting that I’m unavailable but will respond as soon as possible if it is an emergency or the next business day if it’s not.
4. Creating memorable moments
I learned it wasn’t always the quantity of the time spent but the quality of that time that really mattered. Despite a busy schedule when the children were young, going camping multiple times each year was a great way to unplug from work, give them special attention, and for me to relax. Twenty-five years later, we still laugh about being invaded by ants and other camping misadventures. Spending at least one weekend away each year alone with each member of the family was also a strategy that helped me cope and connect. OK, spending more than one weekend away with your spouse/significant other is a better plan. The point is that when you are creating memories you are also finding balance.
5. Taking deliberate action
If you do not firmly plan for personal time, you will never have time to do other things outside of work. No matter how hectic your schedule might be, you ultimately have control of your time and life. When planning time with your loved ones, create a calendar for romantic and family dates. It may seem weird to plan one-on-one time with someone you live with, but it will ensure that you spend quality time with them without work-life conflict. Just because work keeps you busy doesn't mean you should neglect personal relationships.
Find a lifestyle that works for you
Remember, work-life balance means different things to different people because, after all, we all have different life commitments. What’s important is to decide on a lifestyle that allows you to feel productive and passionate about your career, health and relationships.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Jay Fitch, PhD, is a founding partner at EMS/public safety consulting firm Fitch & Associates. He served as a volunteer firefighter in Fairfax County, Virginia, before becoming one of the early medics trained in the United States. He has directed and designed major EMS systems throughout the nation. Contact him directly at firstname.lastname@example.org.