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Work-life balance in public safety: What we can learn from millennials

According to a recent report, 80% of millennial workers say they consider work-life balance when deciding whether to take a job

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Boy, father and grandfather fishing in lake

The work of first responders is important, regardless of which uniform you wear. But the work is not more important than your physical and mental well-being.

Tom Merton/Getty Images

By Dave Cline

Much has been said about millennials in public safety careers. The millennial generation — those born between 1981 and 1996 — are now the dominant generation in rank-and-file public safety. They replaced Generation X (1965 to 1980) and will eventually be replaced by Generation Z (1997 to 2012).

According to Business News Daily, millennial employees make up more than a third of the U.S. workforce. They also have some characteristics that set them apart from previous generations of workers:

  • They are technology natives.
  • They crave work-life balance.
  • They expect collaboration.
  • They require a seat at the table.
  • They want to keep on learning.
  • Their job-related loyalty is fickle.

An article on lists some other “weaknesses” of millennial workers:

  • Due to their independent nature, Millennials are not as interested in teamwork as other generations
  • Millennials spend an average of 38.8 hours spent at work a week compared to previous generations who both average above 40 hours
  • This generation is impatient when it comes to career growth — 49% are likely to leave before two years if they feel their skills are not being developed

Most importantly, according to an article in Forbes, 80% of millennial workers (who now make up about half of the workforce) say they consider work-life balance when deciding whether to take a job.

Speaking up for a generation

You can hardly attend a public safety conference without hearing about the millennial generation in emergency services and the endless pitfalls affecting us. I’ve seen countless presentations, books, and articles on how to communicate with them, how to teach them, and how to lead them.

Of course, overbroad generalizations are not always necessarily accurate. I believe we can agree that the generation coming into emergency services today is smart. They look at situations from a new perspective and they think differently. They are quick to use technology and new problem-solving strategies. They fact-check things, almost instantaneously. I don’t think they always verify the source of their information, but they come to their conclusions quickly.

Much more could be said about what experienced members of emergency service organizations think of those entering our ranks today, just as the generation before us did when we came on, but that is not my message. I want to share one of the aspects I think they are getting right: They strive for a better work-life balance in public safety.

My own work-life “balance”

For me, personally, my work-life balance could be classified as problematic. While it might not rise to the level of ‘disaster’, it’s certainly not in balance.

I am that guy. I have skipped out-of-town trips with my family because of work. I have missed my children’s sporting events because of issues going on at work. I have worked weekends and holidays because of some internal conflict within me where I thought what I was doing was more important than what was going on at home.

On top of all that, I have been with my current department for over 20 years, and I have amassed over 1,800 hours of unused vacation time. I don’t say that to brag — I’m saying it because it doesn’t make sense.

The requirements of leadership

Having a leadership role in any emergency services organization comes with commitments and stressors. Many of those around us will not understand until they actually serve in one of those roles. But we are not helping ourselves if we do not take some time for ourselves.

We cannot talk about mental health in emergency services without addressing the stigma of taking time off. As a manager, I think it is great when everyone comes to work. As a leader, though, I know it is important to support others in taking the time they need to rest and recharge.

A question of balance

How is vacation time addressed in your department’s policies or procedures? Do they reflect the organization’s support of employees taking time off?

In my own agency, I recently wrote in a draft policy, “Employees are encouraged to voluntarily accept overtime hours when the opportunity fits into their availability. Employees are encouraged to maintain a healthy work-life balance and to be mindful of their other commitments and overall well-being.” If you’re a manager, how do you respond to vacation requests? Do employees feel guilty taking time off?

As administrators, we want to hire good people, provide them with good training and professional development, and see them succeed in our organization. But just as importantly, we should want them to be healthy — mentally and physically — to do the work we ask them to do. Our work is important, regardless of which uniform you wear. But the work is not more important than the physical and mental well-being of our personnel.

Creating a culture of time off

Embrace work-life balance in your public safety organization. Encourage your personnel to take time off away from the department. Write this into the culture of your organization, and model the behavior by taking time off for yourself. We should be encouraging our members to take their vacation leave.

Also, I have heard about departments rewarding members for not taking sick leave all year. Let me say, if someone is healthy, that person should not be shamed into taking sick days. But if someone is sick, why do we shame them in the other direction? Why would we not encourage our employees to stay home if they are ill? If a worker is sick, they should feel empowered to stay home until they feel better.

So, take a hint from the millennials in your organization. Go on that fishing trip. Take the time to watch your child’s gymnastics competition. Visit the people who are important to you. Spend some quiet time in the woods; go for that hike; dive back into that hobby you put on the shelf. Do something — anything — to unplug from work.

Take it from me, there is no reward for who has the biggest pile of unused vacation leave. If your department cannot operate without you being there for two weeks, there is probably something structurally wrong with your organization. There are still going to be fires, and medical calls and bad guys to catch when you get back.

Community members are still going to call for help, and your department is still going to respond. Let them tell you all about it when you get back — maybe with a tan, maybe more relaxed, and hopefully refreshed.\

About the author

Dave Cline worked the majority of his 30-year emergency services career in suburban Kansas City, Missouri. After seven years of working in a public safety model department, he left for an opportunity in another Kansas City suburb where the fire department was transitioning from an all-volunteer organization to a career department. Over the past 19 years, Cline has been promoted from captain to assistant chief/fire marshal to deputy chief. For the last four years he has served as fire chief. During that time, as the population of his community has doubled, and the staffing at his department did the same, though the run volume has tripled. He now works as a professional services specialist with Lexipol in the fire vertical.