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How to recognize, help a struggling team member

Identify and aid team members facing depression, burnout or compassion fatigue to foster an emotionally safe organizational environment

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By Jay Fitch, PhD

Many EMS/public safety team members are adept at concealing their internal struggle, especially in its early stages. The affected team member, as well as their peers, may dismiss the occasional signs and uncharacteristic behavior as simply a bad call, day or week. But, without resolution, these changes will persist and become obvious patterns and trends, such as:

  • Apathy toward work and personal interests
  • Expressions of sadness, loneliness or emptiness
  • Irritability, anger and frustration (short-tempered behavior with clients, patients, colleagues)
  • Decreased performance (chronic tardiness, absenteeism, forgetfulness, failure to complete tasks or maintain quality standards)
  • Reduced focus and attention
  • Difficulty making decisions
  • Isolation or detachment from work-related activities
  • Increased complaints and negative talk
  • Poor hygiene or reduced self-care
  • Chronic physical ailments
  • Uncharacteristic, compulsive or promiscuous behavior
  • Substance abuse
  • Frequent talk of death, dying or saying goodbye

Strategies for helping a struggling team member

How to help a team member in need

You may feel that reaching out to a struggling colleague is beyond your expertise, but remember – you don’t have to fix the situation or have all the answers – you need only to be step one of their journey.

  • Connect. If you’re concerned about a caregiver, talk to them privately, starting by simply asking how they’re doing and carefully listening to their response.
  • Listen. Withhold judgment, suggestions and defensive speech, and allow them to say what’s on their mind without censorship or fear of professional repercussions. Allowing team members to express their emotions in a safe environment can diffuse the speaker’s apprehension and potentially lead to positive organization-wide change.
  • Provide resources. Struggling caregivers need to know that they’re not alone and that other EMS professionals grapple with similar experiences and issues. This can reduce feelings of isolation and provide practical, healthy strategies for dealing with public safety’s emotional challenges. Mental health initiatives such as first-responder Safe Call Now (206-459-3020) offer convenient access to numerous professional and peer-to-peer resources.
  • Know when to seek help. Ask the caregiver if they have suicidal thoughts or plan to hurt themselves and encourage them to call the National Suicide Hotline (988) or offer to call on their behalf. Stay with the team member until additional in-person help is available.
  • Promote an open service-oriented culture. Two-way communication is critical for reducing workplace challenges, such as compassion fatigue and burnout. EMS professionals often don’t feel that their employer hears their feedback, which, along with the lack of a supportive culture, can be correlated to increased EMS burnout. Help caregivers feel valued and appreciated with regular check-ins, team-building opportunities and events, and social support systems through regular, informal “open mic” team meetings.
  • Prioritize well-being and team self-care. Set an example and protect yourself from compassion fatigue, burnout and depression by prioritizing your self-care. This can include simple changes, such as:
    • Coming to work well-rested
    • Taking appropriate breaks and resting when you can between calls
    • Using all allocated sick and vacation days
    • Not signing up for back-to-back overtime shifts
    • Participating in non-EMS activities and hobbies
    • Incorporating mindfulness practice into your daily workplace routine (meditation, quiet walks, yoga)

EMS/public safety professionals don’t need to be in a leadership position to affect positive change. While management can create systems and policies to ensure caregivers get adequate meals and breaks during their shift, team members and support staff can lead by example and encouraging coworkers to adopt self-care practices, especially those whom they see struggling to balance their daily routine.

Mental health challenges are not new to EMS/public safety, but their persistence is a clear call for change on a system-wide level. Identifying and aiding struggling team members and fostering an emotionally safe organizational environment can help ensure more EMS professionals will request and receive the help they need, and will feel supported, valued and understood.

About the author
Jay Fitch, PhD, is a founding partner at the emergency services consulting firm, Fitch & Associates. He has nearly five decades of EMS/public safety experience and now serves as the executive director of the non-profit Fitch EMS Education Foundation.

For more than three decades, the Fitch & Associates team of consultants has provided customized solutions to the complex challenges faced by public safety organizations of all types and sizes. From system design and competitive procurements to technology upgrades and comprehensive consulting services, Fitch & Associates helps communities ensure their emergency services are both effective and sustainable. For ideas to help your agency improve performance in the face of rising costs, call 888-431-2600 or visit