Setting yourself up for retirement
Three keys to thriving in your final years on the job
There are times when I’m jealous of my public safety colleagues whose retirement plan gives them the option of a full pension after 30-some years, while they’re in their 50s. It’s not surprising to see medics leaving private and hospital-based EMS services to take a job with a fire department, with an eye on the pension benefits. For those who stay in the private sector, financial considerations may mean that retirement needs to wait a few years. One of the challenges, then, is to think seriously about how to thrive during those last 5-10 years.
Much has been written about the importance of putting money into a retirement savings account throughout one’s working career, taking advantage of compounding and watching the nest egg grow. I’ll leave that discussion to the financial experts. My focus here is on the less tangible aspects of tending to your mental, spiritual and social health while the emotional stresses continue to accumulate.
This is no abstract topic for me. This summer marks 30 years of service as a chaplain with Allina Health, 16 of those in EMS. I’m a couple years past qualifying for Medicare. I stayed, in part to continue contributing to my pension fund, but also because I find the work to be meaningful. I work for a great company and enjoy positive relationships with my coworkers. My health is good.
The thing that has changed the last few years, though, is carrying the emotional weight of the job. It’s knowing that every day, I come face-to-face with the hard realities of human suffering. And in conversations with my age peers, I hear similar stories. After 25-plus years of service, we start to realize that the energy reserve is getting low. The job is taking a toll on us.
When the retirement account isn’t quite where we need it to be, we know we’re going to be working a few more years. I’m not an advice columnist, but here are a few strategies I’ve learned for thriving in your last years on the job.
1. Drop your FTE
Work enough to keep your healthcare benefits and a paychecks, but give yourself time to explore and pursue other interests. I went from full time (1.0 FTE) to three days a week (.6 FTE) 5 years ago. If I had continued doing this job full time, I would have left by now. I now share the work of supporting our paramedics, EMTs and dispatchers with two colleagues who are a generation younger than I am. It’s gratifying to hand them the baton and watch them run with it.
2. Look for ways to reduce your stress
Lateral moves within the same company might mean moving from ALS/911 to interfacility, driving a wheelchair van, or shifting to education and training. One of my interests is in promoting the development of a statewide network of public safety chaplains. It will be a volunteer gig, but one that allows me to stay connected to a field I’ve come to love without having the regular exposure to bad calls.
3. Find a good therapist
There is no shame and much to be gained by finding a professional who understands the trauma associated with working in public safety, who can listen without judgement and walk that path with you.
By the end of this summer, I anticipate being at .2 FTE, one day a week. It’s enough to stay connected and engaged while having time to volunteer in the wider public safety community. I started a 4 hour a week job at my church, connecting with seniors and visiting nursing home residents. My paramedic friends talk about working at a garden shop or other low-stress job, resuming long-neglected hobbies, and renewing old friendships. Find a purpose that will give meaning to your life.
Taking care of ourselves during our working years is key to survival. It is no less important as a decades-long career winds down.