How satisfied are you with your job? For many public safety professionals, the answer to this simple question depends on the day. The rigor of 24/7 operations takes a toll on us physically, mentally and emotionally. Pay isn’t always where it needs to be. Scheduling conflicts abound, and it’s not uncommon to work shorthanded.
These stressors can easily cause public safety professionals to look elsewhere for employment. In the U.S., 4.4 million people quit their jobs during the month of April alone.  This trend has remained consistent for months. Although many of those resignations come from industries outside of public safety, we are not immune. In EMS, the American Ambulance Association (AAA)/Newton 360 Ambulance Industry Employee Turnover Study found voluntary and overall turnover remained in the 20-30% range for EMTs and paramedics.
Some of this turnover occurs through the normal course of business. Baby Boomers and Gen X’ers are retiring in large numbers. But younger people are leaving jobs, too. In a 2021 survey of 2,000 respondents, one research firm discovered that 53% of Millennial and 49% of Generation Z employees were actively looking for another job.  Looking at public safety specifically, we also see that many agencies in this country are only filling about 93% of their authorized positions. 
For every public safety employee who leaves the profession, there are many who continue to find the work satisfying and fulfilling. So what keeps some of us coming back to work each and every day, even when the cards often seemed stacked against us? And for those of us feeling burnt out and considering leaving the profession, is there a way to rekindle the flame?
Attitude and job satisfaction in public safety
It’s important to understand that most of the time, personal job satisfaction directly relates to our attitudes. In other words, we are often our own worst enemy when it comes to determining whether the glass is half-empty or half-full while on the job.
After spending 32 years in public safety (and 20 years in the military), I can easily say there were times when I questioned my role within the organization and my decision to stay the course. Working in public safety is challenging and it’s easy to question whether you made the right career choice. For some, the lack of immediate gratification can be demoralizing. There are many aspects of the job that often seem thankless. On the other hand, no other profession can bring about the personal satisfaction commensurate with helping others in their times of need.
Motivational speaker and musician Kory Livingstone once said, “You’ll achieve far more personal satisfaction trying to impress yourself than you will trying to impress someone else.” In that spirit, it’s important we direct our focus away from the negative aspects of the job itself (the someone else) and focus on what is in our direct control. Simply put, it’s all about attitude. Our attitudes come from within and often help us or hinder us when making big decisions, like moving on to greener pastures.
Now I know what you’re thinking. Attitudes are often based on our experiences in the workplace, right? No doubt about it, and research supports that notion. In fact, Hilal and Litsey found that job satisfaction was shaped more by factors within the work environment than by the personal characteristic of the employee. But what research cannot predict is how attitudes are established based on an endless array of personal characteristics – how we feel on a given day, how the job impacts our relationship with loved ones, the physical and mental toll that shapes our perceptions and decision making – the list goes on.
One common trait possessed by many who work in public safety is the willingness and ability to bring order to chaotic situations. It’s not uncommon to enter a seemingly out-of-control situation, only to quickly make rational decisions that mitigate the crisis. On the other hand, the things that often create the greatest amount of frustration and personal angst are situations that impact us on a personal level but are out of our control. Sadly, these are the issues that lead many personnel out the door. If this sounds like you or you’re one of the people actively working on an exit strategy, there are some important things to consider before you tap out.
Turnover: We have measured it, but can we manage it?
The AAA/Newton 360 turnover survey measures the cost of replacing EMTs and paramedics
Reshape your attitude
While much of the job is not within our control, how we interpret negativity and the challenging aspects of the job very much is.
When I was teaching leadership development, I would ask the participants to pull out a sheet of paper and draw a line down the middle. At the top of the paper, I’d have them place a plus sign (+) on the left side and a minus sign (-) on the right. From there I’d ask them to write everything they love about their job – the positive aspects – on the left. The negative aspects of the job would go under the minus sign on the right side. About half the participants would have more items on the left than the right. Focusing on the right (negative) column, I’d then have them place a checkmark next to all the negative things they could personally address or fix. In the hundreds of training sessions I facilitated, participants rarely placed check marks next to more than three items.
What this tells us is the things that cause us the most frustration at work are things largely out of our control. Now, we can either choose to do something about the things we have control over or simply give in and focus on the negative. Over time, this negative focus will consume us and inhibit our ability to concentrate on the things we relish – the items in the left column. Another interesting observation I made over the years: Even when a participant’s left column had more items, the things out of their control within the right column appeared to consume them and create pervasive negative attitudes.
Do this exercise yourself and see where your perceptions align while on the job. When you see things in the right column without a checkmark, try to mentally let them go. Focus on the left column. These are the things that likely led you to this profession in the first place. You will be surprised how much better you’ll perceive the world around you and how much your personal job satisfaction will increase as you place negativity in the proper perspective.
Conduct a self-assessment
This should be a down-and-dirty reality check. Although we are often quick to blame the agency or society for our woes, the truth is that it often comes down to a personal choice and individual perspective. In his article “Improving Motivation and Productivity of Police Officers,” Jay Fortenbery suggests that we examine our strengths and what makes us truly happy, while looking at our weaknesses with a degree of self-examination.  Remember, no one said it was going to be easy.
It’s important to focus on what impact you can make if you truly apply yourself. In my experience, the sky’s the limit in public safety. Even though it often seems like an uphill struggle, I reflect back on the three decades I was in the profession and feel a great deal of personal satisfaction from not only my own contributions but the contributions made as part of a team. Focus on the “we” rather than the “me” and you’ll find that there’s strength in numbers.
Let the positive aspects of the job and the things that attracted you to it in the first place be the motivating factors that set the tone in your life. Realize that you can’t solve every problem or always make the right decision. Life is a learning process. Each challenge brings about an opportunity for personal growth. It’s also important to establish personal goals and objectives. These can serve as motivating factors that allow you to push forward in spite of adversity. Maybe your goal is moving up and attaining rank or additional responsibilities. Maybe it’s simply making it until retirement. Whatever the goal, see it through and realize that anything worthwhile takes effort and a long-term commitment.
Take care of yourself
This goes without saying, but personal satisfaction and your corresponding job satisfaction have a strong relationship with how you feel. Physical and emotional well-being are important factors in public safety. Diet and exercise allow us to perform the rigorous requirements of the job. Fitness helps us navigate challenging schedules and is the number one way to ward off a litany of health problems commonly found in this line of work. Bottom line: Taking care of yourself will add time to your end game.
Don’t overlook your physiological and emotional well-being. Miao et al’s research found that psychological empowerment was a form of intrinsic motivation related to four very important cognitive variables: meaning, competence, self-determination and impact.  Current research indicates the importance of these variables among younger generations and how a lack of them contributes to dissatisfaction while on the job. It’s also important that you find ways to decompress and escape the hectic work-life commitment. Maybe that means finding a hobby, or maybe it rises to the level of seeking professional help. Whatever the case, take charge and take care of yourself so you have the energy necessary to do the job and avoid burnout.
Focus on the marathon
In a world of instant gratification, the thought of a career that spans multiple decades seems unappealing for many. In 2021, over 47 million employees quit their jobs, representing a 34% increase from 2020.  There’s a multitude of factors that led these people to seek employment elsewhere, but it’s important to understand you can’t make an impact or realize your personal goals unless you stay the course and chip away at the longevity clock one year at a time.
Look at the bigger picture in terms of the overall benefits like healthcare, compensation, leave options and a pension. As I reflect on my own career, I realize three decades went by quickly and am grateful for the long-term benefits a life in public safety afforded my family. Couple the personal satisfaction that comes from serving others with the reward at the end of the rainbow, and I’d stack our line of work against any other industry.
Don’t get caught up in making simple comparisons about things such as compensation when deciding whether to leave. Sure, you can make more with another agency or in another industry, but you’ll likely need to start over in terms of seniority. It’s also important to understand the impact an economic crisis such as recession has on a job. The newer you are or the less recession-proof the industry, the more vulnerable you become. Keep in mind that only one in 10 employees typically leave their jobs for pay. Statistically, more employees are focused on career attributes when it comes to determining personal job satisfaction.  I defy you to find a line of work with more focus on “career” than any profession in public safety.
Take the long-term view
Every public safety agency shares the burden of enhancing job satisfaction for its personnel. That being said, our attitudes and how we perceive the job are clearly within our control. Focus on the positive aspects of the job and what attracted you to the profession in the first place. Do a personal assessment to see where you want your career to go. Establishing goals and objectives will help you remain on track and enhance motivation. Don’t overlook your physical, psychological and emotional well-being. Find a way to escape the rat race and realize the importance of positive thinking.
Finally, don’t become discouraged by only looking at the short-term effects of the job. Think big picture and stay the course so you reap the benefits at the end of what I promise will be a truly rewarding career. In the words of Eric Thomas, “All roads that lead to success have to pass through hard work boulevard at some point.”
1. U.S. Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics. (2022). News Release: Job Openings and Labor Turnover Summary – April 2022.
2. Hilal S, Litsey B. (2020). Reducing police turnover: Recommendations for the law enforcement agency. International Journal of Police Science and Management, 22(1):73–83.
3. Police Executive Research Forum. (2021). PERF Special Report: Survey on Police Workforce Trends.
4. Vector Solutions. (2022). 7 Tips to Reduce High Turnover for First Responders.
5. Fortenbery J. (2015). Improving Motivation and Productivity of Police Officers. FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin.
6. Miao Q, Newman A, Schwarz G et. al. (2018). How Leadership and Public Service Motivation Enhance Innovative Behavior. Public Administrative Review.
7. Work Institute. (2022). 2022 Retention Report: How Employers Caused the Great Resignation.