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5 EMS tips for a work-life balance

When the overtime pool is deep, many EMTs and paramedics will swim for as long as they possibly can

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Your employer isn’t responsible for saying “when” to your overtime, you are.

American Ambulance Association

“Say when” is a common gesture when we would like someone to tell us when they have had enough. Your guest asks you, “Would you pour the coffee?” And you reply, “Certainly, say when.”

In most jobs, our employers tell us how often we will work. They set the schedule and we follow it. If we want more hours, sometimes we can request them. But for the most part, our pay is bound by the limitations on the hours available.

EMS is different. EMS organizations are chronically understaffed. Turnover in many EMS jobs is ridiculously high and, if the company ever does reach full staffing, that will certainly change in a few short months. This creates a unique dynamic, something that rarely exists in the working world, an abundance of overtime opportunities.

Many EMS employers allow their underpaid EMS workforce to work as many overtime hours as they can manage. The employee holds out their cup and the employer says, “Say when.” In fact, when staffing levels are low, employers will encourage employees to work until their cup is full and then keep working.

For many poorly paid EMTs and paramedics, the answer to the, “say when” question is quite frequently, “never.” When the overtime pool is deep, many employees go swimming and they will swim for as long as they possibly can. From the outside, everything can seem like it is in perfect harmony. Employees are able to achieve a living wage and employers are able to staff the rigs and run the calls necessary to cover their increasingly thin profit margins. It seems like everyone wins.

But not everyone really wins. The hidden victim of the overworked EMS workforce is work-life balance. For some EMS employees, work becomes life. I recall Eammon, a paramedic in his early 40s who was trying to put two daughters through college. His solution was to simply work all the time. His family became dependent on his six-to-seven-day-per-week schedule. I often wondered if Eammon’s family missed their father.

Another organization had a small cadre of paramedics who had managed to earn a six-figure salary in a single year of massive overtime. One observant employee came up with a nickname for the group. He called them the hundred thousand dollar divorce club, owing to the large percentage of them that had recently experienced a failed marriage.

The Hopi Indians of Arizona have a word for this. They call it “koyaanisqatsi.” It means life out of balance. It’s not something that we talk about much in our industry. Many employers need a workforce that is willing to work themselves 70 or more hours each week. Employees become financially dependent on overtime pay. In this environment, who’s going to blow the whistle?

So what can you do to protect your own work-life balance? Here are a few things to consider:

1. Take responsibility for the maximum hours that you are willing to work each week

Begin with all of the things outside of your work and ask yourself how much time each of those things deserves. How much of you do your children and family need? How about your recreational activities, your church, your educational development and your own mental and spiritual wellbeing? If you don’t honestly ask yourself the question, you will frequently find yourself willing to compromise everything else when the overtime schedule gets passed around. Find your balance.

2. Recognize the true cost that overtime takes on your life

Consider how much of your off-time is spent resting, overcoming fatigue, managing stress and playing catch-up on day-to-day chores that are normally managed on the days that you worked extra. That extra overtime pay seems alluring, but when you recognize how much overtime actually costs you, you may be less tempted to sign on for multiple days.

3. Know how to say no

When supervisors need their extra shifts covered, they know which employees to ask. In every system, there are the employees who just don’t know how to say no to overtime. Take control of the overtime discussion. Know which days you are willing to work and which days are yours. Don’t compromise. Your time is yours and it is valuable. Protect it.

4. Have a support system

Instead of working all that overtime, work trades. Find the days that you really want to be off and trade with other employees so that you can be present for those events that really fulfill you.

5. Take care of yourself

Exercise, eat right and find the activities that help you renew and recharge. If you are filling your precious time off with beer, Cheetos and television, you are bound to arrive back at work feeling like you need another day off or a good nap. As a profession, we take awful care of ourselves. Value yourself enough to invest in your health. Everything else in your life will benefit.

Your employer isn’t responsible for saying “when” to your overtime, you are. Understand that overtime provides you with a little extra money, but it also comes at a high cost. If you’ve found yourself out-of-balance, make a commitment to start changing things. Say when.

Read next: How to say no to an overtime request

This article was originally posted June 27, 2013. It has been updated.

Steve Whitehead, NREMT-P, is a firefighter/paramedic with the South Metro Fire Rescue Authority in Colorado. He is a primary instructor for South Metro’s EMT program and a lifelong student of emergency medicine. Steve is the host of the One for the Road video training series.