Self-Care and Work-Life Balance in America 2.0
“America 2.0” is what some are calling the new norm once the COVID-19 pandemic becomes a historical event. However, what exactly does America 2.0 look like and how might it benefit the fire service? Several first responder leaders and self-care researchers and educators, including me, have been encouraging a cultural change in the fire service regarding the effective management of one’s self-care. In other words, the research shows when we take better care of ourselves, we can drive down the preventable disease risks. These preventable diseases have negative consequences on our health, work, families, and communities.1-2 Alternatively, research suggests effective self-care management can lead to greater health, well-being, and work-life balance.3-4
Self-care consists of effectively managing your physical, psychological, social, and spiritual needs.5 These needs are universal, meaning every human on Earth requires these within some degree or another.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), improper management of our self-care can lead to catastrophic preventable diseases that harm individuals, families, and organizations.4 Problems with heart disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes, depression, certain types of cancers, and low quality of life are related to obesity and are preventable.4 The deadly harm these preventable diseases have inflicted on the population has been very evident during this pandemic.
COVID-19 and Self-Care: What We Have Learned to Date
The CDC reported as of early April that 78% of COVID-19 patients in intensive care units (ICUs) in the United States had an underlying health condition including obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and chronic lung disease.6 In New Orleans, nearly all ICU patients (97%) who died from COVID-19 had a preexisting condition such as those just mentioned. Louisiana ranks very high on the obesity scale of all 50 states and has become one of the top five hotspots for COVID-19 in the United States. The sad yet not surprising news is that a lack of effective self-care practices over the years has significantly contributed to these patients’ succumbing to this terrible virus.
Self-Care Within the Fire Service
A positive and healthy cultural change of taking better care of our physical and emotional needs began several years ago and is being driven by leaders in the fire service, organizations, researchers, and professionals getting involved to help with the change. For instance, Chief (Ret.) Todd LeDuc, editor of “Surviving the Fire Service” and chief strategy officer for LifeScan Wellness, says it is critically important to receive preventive screenings for early detection of major diseases such as heart disease, stroke, cancer, diabetes, and aneurysms before they reach a catastrophic level.7 He also works with firefighters on behavioral health, nutrition, and exercise programs.
Scientists and researchers are also highly involved with helping the fire service industry embrace self-care. For example, the Center for Fire, Rescue & EMS Health Research conducted the “Cardiovascular Health of the Fire Service: The Heart Healthy Heroes Project.” Sara Jahnke, Ph.D., is a prominent researcher working with HOPE on cardiovascular and nutrition. Both industry leaders embrace effective self-care management practices.
In addition to the health challenges, improper management of self-care can lead to work-life balance issues that exacerbate negative outcomes for firefighters and their families. One lesson we can learn from our COVID-19 experiences as we enter the America 2.0 era is the need to prioritize our physical and psychological self-care needs so we can experience the healing powers of positive spillover.
Spillover can be defined as the effect (positive or negative) or change in one need caused by satisfying another need in life. For example, a good exercise workout (physical need) reduces stress hormones and stimulates the production of endorphins that positively spill over to and produce a calming and mood elevating effect that helps satisfy our psychological needs. Similarly, eating a healthy diet at lunch promotes high energy in the afternoon. A happy family at home promotes feelings of happiness and peace that can spill over and promote resiliency at work. Getting some restful sleep during your shift promotes peaceful emotions when arriving at home. Yes, I know that does not happen very often. Unfortunately, not getting much sleep at work often creates negative spillover, which can promote irritability and loss of patience.
During the month of April, I interviewed many firefighters who were not in hotspots, and they discovered positive spillover in ways they had not experienced before. They had more time at home because they did not have a union, committee, or volunteer project to attend. They found themselves going on walks with their spouses and children. They satisfied a physical exercise need by walking, which promoted reconnecting with their loved ones while reducing their general feelings of stress, all from taking a walk in the park.
From a social and family-need perspective, Firefighter Jim Burneka of the Dayton (OH) Fire Department told me that he’s been enjoying his “guy” time with his two young boys since they are home from school. He said he gets to be dad, teacher, and buddy to his boys by playing ball outside and video games inside. He recognized this additional quantity of quality time with his boys had spilled over to enhance his mood. Perhaps the positive spillover we experience during this pandemic might lead to some new and sustainable habits.
Janke stated in a recent article, “Going through this pandemic is a stressful experience, and realizing the impact the experience has and the ways it makes each person prioritize their lives actually leads to growth.”8 I hope you have been experiencing some positive growth. I have one final thought to leave you with as you reflect during this pandemic crisis: Self-care will fuel a successful and fulfilling life. Align your day-to-day behaviors with your priorities in life. You’ll be more effective with all the hats you wear by experiencing work-life balance through self-care.
Dr. Donnie Hutchinson
Professor, Work-Life Balance
University of Dayton
1. Soteriades ES, Hauser R, Kawachi I, Christiani DC, Kales SN. “Obesity and risk of job disability in male firefighters,” Occup Med (Lond). 2008;58:245–250.
2. Poston WS, Haddock CK, Jahnke SA, Jitnarin N, Tuley BC, Kales SN. “The prevalence of overweight, obesity, and substandard fitness in a population based firefighter cohort,” J Occup Environ Med. 2011;53:266–273.
3. Hutchinson Jr, Donald L. Work-Life Balance Attributes of Self-Care with Authentic Leaders: A Multiple Case Study. Diss. University of Phoenix, 2019.
4. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), (n.d.). https://www.cdc.gov/chronicdisease/overview.
5. Tan, S, & Castillo, M. (2014). “Self-care and beyond: A brief literature review from a Christian perspective,” Journal of Psychology and Christianity, 33(1), 90-95.
7. LeDuc, Todd J, ed Surviving the Fire Service. 1st ed., vol. 1, Fire Engineering Books, 2020.