Today I want to touch on two topics that goes hand in hand: Happiness & stress.
When I tell people I work as a paramedic, they automatically relate to the job as being stressful. That is true. They often relate to stress as a paramedic from the calls we get, the things we see. That is also true. However most people don’t think about the everyday stresses we get, which is not related to the calls we do. In fact over the last 5 years it is the every day stress that gets to me more than the calls. It is the chronic stress that builds up and creates burn out. Let me explain.
I do not deny that bad calls can be extremely stressful, it can trigger PTSD, nightmares, etc. Absolutely. However from my personal experience, those calls are few and far between (thank goodness!). I consider myself lucky. Most calls I can shake off, and move on. I’ve developed a tough skin and over time you learn to be okay with most things you see. What I personally struggle more with is the daily stress regarding, finance, sleep, and family.
For five years I have worked multiple jobs on the side to make ends meet financially. I love being a paramedic and did not want to give that up, so I worked various jobs on the side. Unfortunately, I found most side jobs did not fit my schedule well, or just did not pay enough. So I go from one side job to the next. I think I’ve worked a new side job almost every year I’ve worked as a paramedic. I lived paycheck to paycheck, never really knowing how much I’ll make as work load and call volumes were never consistent. Some days I make a good amount, other days I make so little I would have made more working minimum wage at McDonalds. It was stressful when it came to paying rent, it was impossible to budget expenses, it was always something nagging in the back of my mind: Will I make enough to pay my expenses this month? I cannot blame anyone on my predicament, I knew going into the service this was what was to be expected and I was willing to take on that challenge. However, I cannot deny it got stressful.
I hate being sleep deprived. I know I’m too young to say this, but I don’t like night shifts. The problem with part time work is I do back to back shifts. I don’t do a fixed regular scheduled shift like four days on (two days, two nights) and four days off. I may do something like a 72hr shift, 8hr break, then another 24hr shift. People say, well you’re not constantly working all that time, you’re on call. Well, that is true, the problem comes with sleep pattern. When do I sleep? It is impossible to regulate sleep pattern when you don’t know when you’re going to be called out. I may be up since 9am and not get a call till 6pm and then have to work 16hrs straight, meaning I’d be up for 25hrs without sleep. I could sleep till 5pm, but if I don’t get a call all night, then I would be awake all night twiddling my thumbs, which doesn’t make a lot of sense either. The longest I’ve been awake while working was 31 hours (due to the way the calls came in), within that time I only worked the max 16hrs which is allowed, but 31 hours is an insane amount of time to be awake and expect someone to function at their best.
My loved one often comments on the fact that I’m tired all the time, that I’m constantly sleepy and exhausted. He is correct, I am always sleepy and tired. People expect me to bounce back after one or two nights of good sleep. Unfortunately it doesn’t work like that. You can’t bank sleep (I wish we could!), in fact it takes a number of days of regular sleep for me to feel refreshed. This doesn’t happen when you work consistently. So zombie I will be, which isn’t really fair on my relationship.
The other aspect is down time. Because I work out of town, when I’m working I’m staying at the station. Which means I generally share a room with another coworker (two beds in one room). I’m an introvert and often I’d like to have space and time to myself to decompress. It is difficult to do that when there are always people around and there is no real privacy. Shift change happens at 7am or 6pm, sometimes people talk louder than they should or clang the dishes to get breakfast ready. It is really tough to get good sleep and get the revitalization I need. Sometimes I just stay in my room all day. People at my station must think I’m a hermit, but really I’m just trying to create my own haven, to be away from others for a little bit to recharge. It isn’t that I’m anti-social and I don’t like my coworkers. I absolutely love my station and the people, it is just difficult to find time for me sometimes.
One thing that comes hand in hand with working out of town is, you’re generally not home for days at a time. Time away from my loved ones creates stress not just for me but also for my partner. I remember a time in my life where I’d be away from home 5 days a week. That is no way to have a committed relationship.
As a part time paramedic, there are a few things I’ve got ingrained into me:
- I love my bed. (I wish I can finish work and just sleep in my own bed. You have no idea how lucky you are.)
- Forgetting to bring your pillow, pajamas, and cell phone charger to work = a terrible work block.
- I don’t like suitcases. (My life revolves around packing and unpacking my suitcase).
I am an optimistic person. I believed if I put in my 5 years (at the time it was 5 years to get full time position in the city), I’ll be good to go, things will be easier. If only life runs so smoothly. Seniority has gone up to 6-8yrs now for a full time position. I can’t wait any longer.
I understand why paramedics feel burnt out, I get it. I now understand why when I first tried getting into the ambulance service, many medics warned me to get out while I can, telling me only crazy people enter the ambulance service. Does this mean I don’t like being a paramedic anymore? Absolutely not. Having worked various jobs on the side, I still find no better job than being a paramedic. It simply to me is, the best job in the world. But the real question is, am I happy?
Happiness is an interesting thing, everybody in the world wants to be happy. What is the secret? Is there a secret? People tell you it isn’t about the money, it is about finding what you love in life, it is about feeling fulfilled, it is about finding the job you love and a job does more than just spit out a paycheck. I believe that is true, but it isn’t that simple.
I found a job I love, I found a job that I believe to be my calling. How lucky am I? Most people don’t even know what they want to do. Having the job I love will make me happy right? I never hate going to work, I enjoy going to work, it is a fulfilling job that gives back to the community, gives you an opportunity to influence others and save lives. I don’t make a lot, but it isn’t about the money right?
Well here is what I’ve learned. I have my dream job, but I wasn’t completely happy. I was constantly stressed. I worked a lot, but something wasn’t adding up. Then I realized it was because I haven’t built my foundation.
I’m sure some of you have seen Maslow’s Hierarchy of needs:
If I haven’t met my physiological needs, how can I expect to be happy? I need financial security so I know I have shelter, food, clothing. I need to not be constantly sleep deprived so I can feel like a normal human being. I need to be able to spend time with my family instead of being away all the time. You can’t build a house on a crumbling foundation, it’ll topple over. I realize it is the same with happiness, it is only when I have these fundamental building blocks in place, will having my dream job come into play.
It took me almost five years to realize this.
This year, thanks to a convincing friend, I applied for a full time job with another company which is related to emergency work and still offers the same satisfaction with helping others albeit not in the front lines. This is a shift work job, but it still allows me to work casually as a paramedic and keep my seniority going, aka a perfect fit. New job offers me stability financially, gives me benefits, offers me regulated sleep patterns, allows me to go home after work, sleep in my own bed, spend time with my loved ones. It meets the foundation I need. It also allows me to pursue my extra-curricular interests – climbing and martial arts. Do I miss working on the street and on car? Absolutely. But am I happier? Yes. Am I less stressed out? Double yes.
Does this mean my paramedic career is over and done with?
What I see is a journey. I will always be a paramedic, but sometimes it takes a few turns and twists before I get to the final destination. It is important to remember the journey isn’t about how quickly one gets to the destination but to embrace the meaning the journey has to offer and to value every step. Having chosen the path of paramedicine has taken me to interesting places, allowed me to try various jobs, shown me that none of these jobs were more satisfying than paramedic work (that I didn’t choose wrong!), allowed me to appreciate my current new job and what it brings to my life in building a strong foundation for happiness, and finally it has challenged me mentally and emotionally, that I can be strong.
I may be working this new job for another three or four years and casually as a paramedic. In the future however, I can work full time as a paramedic and this current job casually. Life is flexible, the journey isn’t always straight forward, it is only a matter of finding a path that would work for you, finding what you need to do to feel complete and happy and enjoy what life has to bring.
I want to end this post with a big Thank You to all my readers. I haven’t posted in this blog for a long time and yet I am getting more traffic than ever before. It is always exciting getting replies from readers and seeing so many people interested in paramedicine and the passion and excitement they bring. We need people like you in our ambulance service, the excitement, the fresh energy and passion. Because sometimes the folks that have been in longer, we lose a bit of that enthusiasm and we need the new people to step up to show us why we got ourselves into this career in the first place. It is refreshing.
This is my last blog post.
I have contemplated whether to continue writing for a long time. I feel that this blog has met its objectives in inspiring those who are interested in paramedicine, and providing a platform of information for those who are interested in becoming a paramedic. I no longer feel the need to post stories as I have before. I do have many more stories to tell, but I will save that for if we ever cross paths in person (not while I’m working as a paramedic of course! Unless you’re my partner for the day).
I will continue to check my blog from time to time to answer questions.
To my colleagues, thank you for always have my back and I love working with you. You make the bad days go easier and the easy days a blast. We are family and we are never alone.
To my loved one, you have always supported me in what I loved to do (too many things!), there is no greater love than that.
Lastly I want to thank all my patients for inspiring and teaching me the value of life. All of you have played a part into making me who I am, and for the better. It is always an honour to be there at your most vulnerable. I will never forget.
– Michelle Tsoi