Wearing Stress Like a Badge of Honor

Stress: There’s no doubt that to work in any branch of emergency services, you have to have a passion for it.

For those of us who volunteer, we do it like it’s our job. For those of us for whom it’s our job, we get paid as if we’re volunteering.

Stress Badge
Every single job in emergency services is inherently stressful and the irony is that many of us work SEVERAL jobs in emergency services.


Sometimes you’ll hear those conversations at work, those games of one upmanship:  “I worked 80 hours last week.” “Oh yeah, I work two EMS jobs before I go to my job at the firehouse!! ” “Yeah, well I work five jobs in emergency services before I go do my side work!!!

Of course you work hard. We all do.

By definition we are dedicated, hard-working, Type A individuals. It takes a lot to hone our skills, so naturally we use those skills in as many different ways as possible to provide the best that we can for ourselves and our families.  And it’s also natural for there to be a little bit of competitiveness among us. Who doesn’t want to be the one who works the hardest? But it doesn’t take much for that hard work to cross the line from eustress to distress. It’s great to give your all for your job, your community, and your family.  But it’s no good when, at the end of the week, you’ve got nothing left for yourself.

The problems start to compound when high levels of stress from work, personal, and family pressures start to become the “New Normal”. A recent article in TIME magazine even describes this situation as “stress addiction” – as the body becomes acclimated and then eventually craves the constant release of stress chemical that stimulate the central nervous system. In short bursts, these chemicals help raise alertness, cognition and physical readiness, but if the body is kept in this state on a chronic basis the long term negative affects of stress begin to take hold. Stress can contribute to fatigue, depression and physical health issues like heart disease and cancer.

Physical addiction or no, the fact is that many emergency responders are good at what they do  – at least in part – because they have a need to be needed. But for some that need may prompt them to regularly accumulate, even seek out large amounts of stress. Sometimes throwing themselves into work is an unconscious effort to avoid the core issues that are causing the real stress. Often, they are not even aware that they are doing it.

You can see some responders wearing that stress like a badge on their uniform.

You think YOU are a multitasking maniac? Let me tell you about MY week!” It is like a badge of honor for them, one that they may even use to shield themselves from the very work that they profess to do so much of. “Hey Cap, can we skip training? I got my ass kicked on the overnight at my other job.” “I couldn’t finish that paperwork, I’ve been beat from all of the overtime this week.” “Sorry for not cleaning the rig but I’ve been on for 72 hours straight and I’m coming back for another double shift.

Sometimes it isn’t that obvious. Even significant stress can be subtle, especially when it ramps up over a very long period of time. Perhaps you’ve sometimes said “Oh yeah. That’s just (insert name here). He/She is always like that.”

So if the stressee is wearing the stress with pride and it’s been going on forever, how can you identify the stress that is, itself, the SOURCE of the problem, instead of the result?

Psychologist Connie Lillas suggests that significant stress can manifest itself in a variety of ways, but three common patterns emerge.

1)    Pedal to the Floor! – Someone who is full-on agitated, angry, overly emotional and upset over every little thing.

2)    Slam on the Brakes! – Someone who is withdrawn, depressed, shut down, spaced out, isolated or numb to situations and events that should otherwise provoke an emotional response.

3)    Both feet on the Pedals! – The high-tension, but frozen response. Deer in the headlights. None of these reactions are good, but for emergency responders, this can be the most dangerous!

If that sounds like you, you should definitely take some time to re-evaluate your situation. If that sounds like a co-worker, you should take the time to tell them what you see going on. If that sounds like someone who works for you, you should take the time to help them get straightened out.

We all have some stress (we’ve got an upcoming Goal of the Week #GOTW on that) but one has to be aware of the signs that it’s becoming a significant problem. There’s nothing wrong with working hard and being damn proud of it. But there is a fine line between having a stressful day or week and maintaining a stressful year, career or life. If you (or someone you know) seems to be wearing that stress badge on purpose, like any other safety issue, it’s time to:

Short Term

1)    Stop stress in its tracks. If possible to do so safely, remove yourself from the stressful situation.

2)    Focus on positive elements of your situation.

3)    Seek out social support.

4)    Seek professional assistance.

Long Term

1)    Rework your time management

2)    Exercise

3)    Improve your diet.

4)    Identify and accept the things that are out of your control.

5)    Change the things that are under your control.


These  suggestions can help get you started in identifying and dealing with self-destructive stress in yourself, your co-workers and those under your command. It can be difficult to identify in emergency services; professions where stress is a normal part of duty work, but you need to keep an eye out. Once someone starts wearing that badge it can be very difficult to get them to take it off. That stress becomes of so much a part of them that when you try to work on it it’s like you’re attacking them personally. Baby steps are key here. Big changes may be the needed to help get back on the path to health, productivity, and happiness, but these big changes can often only be accomplished through small steps, and with the help of others. Medic SBK talks about this in two great posts on his blog HERE and HERE.

Taking that badge off isn’t easy. Some people will hold onto it with both hands. No matter how obviously harmful that stress may be, it’s what they know. It’s what they live with. It has become their comfort zone. Getting away from it (even discussing it) may be no easy task.

Still, the GREAT thing about emergency services is that once you recognize that you or someone you know is wearing that badge and you know it’s time to take it off, there will be plenty of brothers and sisters to help you do it.

About romduck

Rom Duckworth is a dedicated emergency responder, author, and educator with more than thirty years of experience working in career and volunteer fire departments, hospital healthcare systems, and private emergency medical services. Rom is a career fire captain and paramedic EMS Coordinator for the Ridgefield (CT) Fire Department and director of the New England Center for Rescue and Emergency Medicine. Rom holds a master’s degree in public administration, is a graduate of the National Fire Academy’s Executive Fire Officer program, and is the recipient of the NAEMT Presidential Award, American Red Cross Hero Award, Sepsis Alliance Sepsis Hero Award, and the EMS 10 Innovators Award. Rom is the author of "Duckworth on Education," as well as chapters in more than a dozen EMS, fire, rescue, and medical textbooks and over 100 published articles in fire and EMS magazines. A member of the NAEMT Board of Directors, as well as other national and international advocacy and advisory boards, Rom continues to work for the advancement of emergency services professions. Contact Rom via www.romduck.com