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  • Rachelle Zemlok, PsyD

THE IMPACTS OF TOO MUCH OVERTIME

As a police wife or fire wife you know all too well that your spouse works beyond the normal shift pretty often. We hear the news highlighting the amounts of overtime that first responders work. The public can have a strong reaction to hearing about first responders doubling or tripling their salary from overtime. These professions are actually not held to the same standard as other employers through the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA). The truth is, any profession that requires around the clock staffing is going to struggle with constantly filling those shifts.


As you know, overtime is often times out of the first responder’s control, we call this forced overtime. This means there’s an immediate need, your spouse is already there or next on the list, and 911 calls don’t stop so we have to deal with it. When that happens, unfortunately we all need to adapt and accept that this is part of the job, take a deep breath, and carry on. However, there are also many times overtime is a choice. I believe when it’s a choice it should always be a thoughtful family decision and your family should consider every angle, not just how much more money it brings in. It might come at a greater cost than you might imagine considering longevity and family resiliency.


There are some obvious benefits of overtime including:


Financial Benefits: This is especially true for one income households. First responder’s might be able to make up financially for what another income would be bringing in.


Skill Building: Obviously the more time an individual spends doing their job it increases their experience and confidence. Special assignments might be chosen in order to develop new skills and improve at their job.


Potential Negative Impacts of Overtime:


Time Away: More time at work means less time with your family. If relationships are struggling maybe this isn’t the best time for voluntary O.T. Maybe you’re feeling disconnected and could use some more time together or maybe your kids have been missing their parent. Or the First Responder has been missing a lot of important events. Maybe you as the spouse, you are feeling burnt out managing things on your own and could use some additional support at home. All great reasons to decrease O.T. when you can. This doesn’t mean forever, but might mean this next month, or next year. That’s the discussion to be had. All relationships need investment… we have to invest before it’s too late.


Increased Exposure: It’s a well known fact that first responders are at a greater risk for Traumatic Stress, Depression, Suicide, and other mental health issues. We know this has something to do with the nature of their work and the exposure they have to traumatic events due to many of the calls they go on. More calls equals more potential exposure. Someone who’s working 80 hours a week is likely doubling their exposure to these things and could be potentially accelerating any symptoms they might have or increasing their chances of developing them. More time at work obviously also increases their chances of being involved in a critical incident themselves. This obviously is an even higher risk for stations and departments that have high call volumes. Yes this is the nature of their work, however if things have been tough lately for your first responder maybe reducing voluntary O.T. is a good idea as a way to give them a chance to recover. Balance in life is always key. It can be hard for first responders to find that balance if they are spending more time at work than they do off duty.


Longevity: Shifts for first responders often demand them to be alert during times when our bodies naturally want to be asleep. Research suggests that our bodies never actually adjust to a night shift schedule. This is a big deal! The World Health Organization (WHO) classified night work as a probable carcinogen in 2009 based on the increased rates in cancer they found in men and women who worked nights. Disruptions in circadian rhythms are linked to various sleep disorders and mood disorders and there is just more fatigue in that individual overall. Poor sleep poses challenges for so many things such as slower cognitive functioning, mood, food cravings, energy levels etc.


Physical Injury: As their careers progress, first responders become more and more prone to injuries that stem from overuse of their bodies. Believe it or not, strains, sprains, and muscle pain continue to be some of the common injuries. In fact, these types of injuries account for over half of the injuries on the fireground and off the fireground. The most important tool first responders have is their own body.


Serious Medical Issues: We know that the nature of the job over a career also raises the risk in our first responders for things like obesity, heart attacks, sleep disorders, and cancer in firefighters. So we should also take that into consideration, and understand that more time on the job over a career may also be increasing these chances for our first responders.


What if we need it financially?

Sometimes overtime is necessary because of expenses or maybe you’re saving up for a trip. All great things to communicate about. However if someone or something seems to be particularly out of balance right now there are other ways to try and address things financially that might come with less impacts. You can talk about better budgeting at home or sharing the financial responsibility with two incomes. Sometimes families find it hard to justify the other spouse getting a job because the First Responder can make more money quicker. Again, reconsider if you’re noticing some significant impacts on your marriage, your child’s behavior, or the first responder’s wellness. This has to be an ongoing conversation because the needs of the family change constantly.


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