Suffering from burnout? Sleep on it!

When I teach the NAEMT Safety Course I make the point that back injury is the most common cause for leaving EMS. Someone invariably disagrees and says burnout is the main culprit. There are statistics for back injuries, but none for burnout.  The concept of burnout became popular in the early 1970s. Although not rooted in EMS, early articles by Maslach and Freudenberger described idealistic young professionals in health care and social services who were working too hard while not given adequate resources to do their jobs well. Over the years research has shown that burnout has three components: exhaustion, cynicism and inefficacy.

Do professionals in EMS get enough sleep? Do they have work schedules that allow seven to eight hours of sleep, which is the optimal amount for people? Studies from all over the world describe the noxious effects of inadequate sleep. A Finnish study showed folks who slept five hours or less, or 10 hours or more, missed five to nine more work days than those who slept the optimal amount. Research from France shows years of shift work can impair brain function. Shift workers were shown to have poorer performance in memory, processing speed and brain power. Those who worked rotating shifts had even poorer performance. Fortunately, once people stop shift work their functions improve, but the improvement can take up to five years. An English study revealed sleep disruption can actually alter the genes which control our sleep wake cycles. Researchers in Philadelphia used mice to show that chronic sleep deprivation causes a neuron loss of 25% in the locus coeruleus. This loss makes it more difficult to stay alert.

What are some signs that you’re not getting enough sleep? A study from the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine addressed the concept of fatigue risk management in workplaces and identified the following signs of sleep deprivation. Physical signs include: frequent yawning, drooped head or eyelids, rubbing one’s eyes, and the scariest one, microsleeps. Microsleeps are defined as unnoticed periods of sleep or as brief, unintended episodes of loss of attention that may be accompanied by prolonged eye closure, lasting from a few seconds to a few minutes. Has anybody experienced microsleeps while driving? Have some not lived to tell about it? Mental and performance signs include: difficulty in concentrating on tasks, inattention, memory or recall defects, forgetting to communicate important information, and incorrectly performing tasks. Not surprisingly, there are Emotional and Behavioral signs. Sleep deprived people become uncharacteristically quiet, withdrawn or moody, have low energy and lose the motivation to perform work well. When you are chronically sleep deprived, you lose the ability to accurately assess your need for sleep. Stop and think for a moment about these three types of signs. Are any of these applicable to you? Do you think if you have them you may become cynical? In the next Vitals we'll discuss the other two cause of burnout: cynicism and inefficacy.

The information provided in this article is intended for general informational purposes only and should not be considered as all encompassing, or suitable for all situations, conditions, and environments. Please contact us or your attorney if you have any questions.

For safety or risk management questions or suggestions, please contact Markel.

Email us