Feeling Overwhelmed?

Kick Start your Work-Life Balance Now

Who are the priorities in your life? (pixabay)

By Dr. Donnie Hutchinson

It is important to understand that work-life balance is available for firefighters.  It is also important to understand what work-life balance (WLB) is and what it isn’t.  WLB is not about spending equal time at work and home.  WLB is an outcome or an effect you experience when your day-to-day behaviors are aligned with your priorities in life.1 When one’s behaviors are out of alignment with his/her priorities, one starts to feel overwhelmed and out of balance. 

The most common “stated” priorities of firefighters are work, family, and good health.2 However, when one examines their average day-to-day behaviors, a shortfall with family and health often occurs.  The family shortfall may occur for some from working overtime, a second or third job, and mental stress.  Mental stress can negatively impact the family through depression, anxiety, alcohol and/or drug abuse and divorce.  A significant number of undesirable effects from overeating and a lack of exercise are prevalent with the fire service industry.  A staggering 80% of firefighters are overweight and obese.3-5 This statistic yields real issues for the health and wellness of fire fighters.  According to Chief Todd LeDuc (Ret), Editor of Surviving the Fire Service, firefighters experience a significant increased risk with cardiovascular disease, certain types of cancers, and mental illnesses verses non-firefighters.6  Although firefighters “state” their priorities are work, family and good health, they are beginning to recognize their day-to-day behaviors do not support their priorities in life.2

3-Steps to Reprioritize Family and Health

The first step consists of spending time reflecting on your priorities in life.  For example, who in your life do you consider a priority?  Perhaps it is your spouse, children, parents, siblings, or friends.  In other words, it is the relationships you have as you journey through life.  Priorities usually ebb and flow as the needs of people we love increase or decrease over time.  The needs of a married couple might vary as the relationship grows while our children’s’ needs might increase and decrease with age.  The important attribute of this first step is to think about who in your life is a priority and ask yourself if your day-to-day behaviors have been supporting that priority.

It is also important to reflect on what is important in your life regarding your health.  I encourage you to reflect on two universal self-care needs to help you understand your current reality.  Reflect on how well you are managing your physical and mental health.  How well one manages their diet, exercise, and sleep are significant indicators of whether they are within the optimal guidelines of good health.  As with managing one’s physical needs, it is equally and perhaps more important to effectively manage one’s mental health.  For example, ask yourself if you are engaging in peer support opportunities after experiencing a significant event or if you are seeking therapy from a fire service experienced counselor.  Gaining an understanding of how well you are doing with your family relationships and your personal health are the goals of reflecting on your current reality.

The second step is to begin thinking about what you want for your future life.  Imagine how you would like things to be with your family relationships and health.  After all, you are the architect of your life and your future is an effect of your daily decisions. In an interview with Rachel Hutchinson, founder of the Positive Psychology Club of The Ohio State University, “Dreaming about the future — who you wish to be and what kind of life you want to create — increases positive emotions, well-being, and gratitude”.7  As such, try not to place limitations on yourself by allowing the negative chatter in your head to sabotage your efforts in imagining your desired future.  What is it about your relationships with your spouse, children, and others that you would like see change?  Try to think about what you might need to begin doing or stop doing to enhance your relationships with the people you love.  Do not let past mistakes hold you back from dreaming about what could be.

Once you have an understanding of what you want your desired future to be regarding your relationships, it is time to turn to the person in the mirror and ask yourself what you desire for your physical and mental health.  If weight loss, healthier eating habits, less alcohol and an exercise program are in your desired future, then you are probably on the most popular course.  Perhaps you could consider adding peer support and mental health therapy as proactive tactics to help mitigate any significant mental health problems from the stressors of work.

 The final step is to build a tactical plan to move from your current reality to your desired future.  In other words, think about and document on paper some actionable steps that you could begin implementing to put you on the path toward your desired future.  For example, ask yourself what you could do for or with your spouse this week that would add value to your relationship.  Perhaps do the same if you have children.  Whether it is your spouse, children, or another very important person in your life, write down something you could do to add positive value to that relationship.  Now go do it.  Let me repeat.  Go get it done!  Remember, knowledge is only useful when you act on it. 

Once you implement, take a physical or mental note of how you and the other person felt.  Then, reflect on the second thing you could do to add to the relationship.  Perhaps it is a dinner date, going out for a drink or a movie with your spouse or significant other.  Perhaps it is attending your child’s sporting or school event.  The critical action here is to keep the trend going.  The days are long, yet the years fly by.  Don’t miss the opportunities with your special relationships. 

As you are implementing tactical actions to improve your family relationships, it is also important to evaluate and create actionable steps to assist you with your health goals for your desired future.  If starting and sustaining an exercise program is in your future, then try discussing your desires with a brother or sister at the firehouse who could join you in the physical exercise program.  This process will help create an accountability partner which has been shown to help increase intrinsic motivation which leads to sustainability.  As one begins to include exercise, adjusting the diet to enhance the effects of exercise is usually a helpful next step.  Reducing sugar and carbohydrates is a rapidly growing trend that has been delivering outstanding results.  However, always check with your doctor before you make any drastic changes to your physical exercise and diet.

If you are feeling overwhelmed at this point, don’t be.  Simply begin by reflecting on how things are in your life regarding your family relationships and your physical and mental health.  Next, imagine how you would like things to be.  Dream about how you desire the future to be regarding these items.  Lastly, implement some actional steps that will move you closer to your desired future. 

You have the skills and experience to do this.  Think about how you train on the fire ground.  Upon arrival, you evaluate the situation (current reality).  Next you quickly understand that you are desiring to save lives and property (desired future).  Lastly, you implement your tactical steps (action plan) to achieve the desired future.  The three-step process described above to reprioritize your family and health follows your training model. It is just like what you have been training to do at work and implementing on the scene.  It is now time to benefit from this training and apply it to your family relationships and personal health.


  1.  Hutchinson D. Work-Life Balance in the Workplace. In: Aquino C., Robertson R. (eds) Diversity and Inclusion in the Global Workplace. 2018 Palgrave Macmillan, Cham
  2. Hutchinson, D. Work-Life Balance Through Effective Self-Care Strategies. International Association of Fire Fighters Human Relations Conference. Orlando Florida. 21 Jan 20.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. Poston WS, Haddock CK, Jahnke SA, Jitnarin N, Day RS. An examination of the benefits of health promotion programs for the national fire service. BMC Public Health. 2013;13:805.
  6. LeDuc, Todd J, editor. Surviving the Fire Service. 1st ed., vol. 1, Fire Engineering Books, 2020.
  7. Hutchinson, Rachel. Personal Interview. 22 Feb2020

Dr. Donnie Hutchinson is national work-life balance speaker who has presenting every year since 2017 at the (IAFF/ALTS) annual conferences.  He has delivered many workshops for firefighter health and wellness seminars, EMS, local fire districts, and state organizations.  He is a professor at the University of Dayton teaching leadership courses in the MBA school.  He is the author of two books on work-life balance. www.donniehutchinson.com

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