The Stress of Being a Paramedic

two paramedics beside a yellow ambulance

It is hard to think of a job that deals with more trauma than a paramedic. These first responders are often first on the scene of accidents, life-threatening illnesses, and violence. They deal with injury and death on a daily basis, and at times can become exposed to danger and violence themselves. The worst events involve children, including accidents, child abuse, and serious illness. Even a near miss with a child could be disturbing. It is no wonder that paramedics have a high rate of post-traumatic stress disorder—PTSD. Some new research by Steph Andel, Shani Pindek, Paul Spector, Remle Crowe, Rebecca Cash and Ashish Panchal, published in Journal of Occupational Health Psychology, provides new insights into the stress of being a paramedic.

The Emotionally Disturbing Work of Paramedics

The Andel team administered anonymous surveys to 233 paramedics across the US who were listed in the National Registry of Emergency Medical Technicians or NREMT. These paramedics were asked to competed surveys once per week for 10 weeks about their weekly exposure to emotionally disturbing work events and potential health and well-being outcomes. They were asked to describe any events they experienced for the week and how disturbing they were. Assessments were included concerning their level of burnout, how well they had been sleeping, the extent to which they relived the events over in their minds (rumination), and alcohol consumption for the prior week.

The paramedics in the study described more than 400 events. The five most frequently mentioned were:

  • Encountering a patient with a serious medical emergency like a seizure or stroke.
  • Encountering a patient in cardiac arrest.
  • Encountering a patient who was severely injured.
  • Encountered someone who was recently deceased.
  • Encountering a patient who was seriously ill.

The Stress of Being a Paramedic

The Andel team did analyses of each paramedic’s exposure to emotionally disturbing work events, and their health/well-being. They found that paramedics who were exposed to more emotionally disturbing events across the 10 weeks of the study experienced the following

  • Higher levels of burnout
  • More trouble shutting off thoughts about work (rumination)
  • Worse sleep
  • More alcohol consumption

They conducted a series of complex analyses to gain insights into why exposure might affect burnout and sleep problems. Results suggested that inability to shut off thoughts about work was likely the reason that paramedics experienced burnout symptoms and had difficulty sleeping. This study shows how exposure to emotionally disturbing events is clearly linked to the emotional strain of burnout and sleep problems. It goes a step further in suggesting that the reason is due to the inability of paramedics to disengage from work after a shift when they experience emotionally disturbing events. This means that interventions designed to reduce the stress of being a paramedic would do well to focus on helping them develop skills in detaching from work so they can stop thinking about recent events. There is little that can be done to avoid emotionally disturbing events because they are an integral part of the job. The next best thing is to help paramedics learn to better cope so they can avoid emotional strain that can lead to post-traumatic stress.

Photo by Mikhail Nilov from Pexels

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