Self-Care: The Systemic Work-Life Balance and Mental Health Secret

The research overwhelmingly demonstrates that healthy, sustainable behaviors of proper diet, exercise, sleep, positive relationships, and meditation or prayer promote a healthy physical, psychological, social, and spiritual fitness that is beneficial to the individual, family, crew and employer.
Living out of balance for an extended period can lead to an increase of physical and mental health problems. (pixabay)

By Dr. Donnie Hutchinson

We often hear about systemic problems, whether real, perceived, or promoted as a root problem of many negative effects one experiences throughout their journey in life.  However, a real, evidence-based systemic root problem is prevalent within the health and wellness of firefighters.  Ineffective self-care practices negatively affect physical and mental health, professional success, personal achievement, and the success of their families.1-2  This far reaching problem affects more than firefighters.  This is also a national systemic problem that negatively affects individuals of all professions and their families.

This might sound like it is going to be a doom and gloom article, but it is not.  You will learn three of the most effective ways to increase your mental health fitness which also promotes a balanced life.  In other words, three methods that you can begin doing today to improve your mental health and work-life balance. But first, it is important to learn about the serious and negative consequences of being out of balance with your self-care.

Self-Care and Spillover:      

Effective self-care practices are a universal need that consists of the management of one’s physical, psychological, social, and spiritual needs.  Fulfilling some needs and neglecting others is not a healthy alternative since all needs require attention and care.  Practicing effective self-care actions is a practical step in developing a healthy balance between one’s personal and professional life.3      

The ramifications of living out of balance for an extended period can lead to an increase of physical and mental health problems and a reduction of overall well-being.4  It is important to mention that a person’s balance ebbs and flows over time.  We all get out of balance from time to time.  However, it is important to never be out of balance for too long of a period.  The reason for this is because what we do in one role in life can affect other roles such as work, family, and self-care.  How things affect each other is called spillover and it can either be negative or positive.

One of the most widely experienced negative spillover firefighters work to manage is a lack of restful sleep.  As you know, if you do not receive the adequate amount of required sleep while on shift, you will go home with a high likelihood of acting irritable toward your loved ones.  This is an example of negative spillover.  The lack of satisfying this physical need for sleep can negatively impact your psychological need for emotional stability.  The ramifications of taking your emotional stress out on your family members can negatively impact yours and their social need for family connection.  As you can tell, sometimes this negative snowball keeps rolling downhill and becomes a significant disrupter in our lives.

There is much research that demonstrates when the components of self-care are not effectively managed, it can have significant negative connections to one’s physical and mental health.5  Educating firefighters to help them attain a better understanding of the damaging effects negative spillover has on one’s health might help motivate change.  The lack of physical exercise, poor eating habits, and other unhealthy behavioral choices such as excessive alcohol consumption significantly contributes to the chronic, preventable disease increase in the United States which are the leading causes of death.6  Also, bringing awareness to firefighters on the positive effects of healthy self-care practices and how they can lead to greater physical and mental health might be another good motivator for sustainable change.

Three Methods to Improve Mental Health

It is time that we begin to focus on the positive elements of spillover.  Some researchers refer to this as enrichment or positive spillover.  There is a tremendous amount of health and wellness empirical research on this subject.  The research overwhelmingly demonstrates that healthy, sustainable behaviors of proper diet, exercise, sleep, positive relationships, and meditation or prayer promote a healthy physical, psychological, social, and spiritual fitness that is beneficial to the individual, family, crew and employer.  These behaviors work in unison and improve behaviors in other areas of our lives, especially the mental health component. 

The following three examples may appear to be simple but do not let that fool you.  Simplicity is the key to solving complex problems. 

            Nutrition:  If you are eating food that used to run, swim, or was grown on a farm, you are on the right track. Food ingested from nature has a positive spillover on our mental health versus processed and packaged food’s negative impact.  Some of you might be hesitant to believe what we eat affects our mental health.  The research shows that a natural diet positively influences mood and emotions versus one that overindulges in processed and packaged carbohydrates, fats, and sugars.  For example, a recent study published by Nutritional Neuroscience on diet and mental health showed a diet consisting of vegetables, fruits, unprocessed whole grains, healthy fats, fish, and less red meat had a significant positive impact on mood, emotion, and behavior.7  A similar study showed the traditional American diet of processed foods with large quantities of starch and sugars produced an increase in depression symptoms.8  Therefore, consider simplifying your food intake by eating natural foods to enhance your daily mood.

            Exercise:  Have you ever considered exercise as something that is good for your mental health?  The science is noticeably clear that you will experience positive spillover with the immediate calming effects of exercise on your racing thoughts, mood, and emotions once you finish a workout.  The brain releases endorphins and other mind-calming chemicals that provide you a relaxing sensation immediately following exercise.  You have probably heard of the ‘runners high”. Whether you choose to run, lift weights, or another physical workout, you will experience a calming effect from your chosen exercise.  As a potential bonus for some, a recent study showed exercise appeared to alleviate depression and anxiety symptoms.

            Family Time:  In my recent research study on self-care and work-life balance, one of the participants stated that spending time with his wife and children helped him manage and sustain his mental health of optimism.  He stated in the interview, “Obviously the relationships with my wife, kids, friends, all have a piece in managing and sustaining the psychological side of things.  I’m sure the reasonable diet, exercise, and sleep help me on that front too”.10  When was the last time you took your spouse or significant other out on a date?  When is the best time to start improving your nutrition and exercise?  As the great philosopher Jimmy Buffett sings, “According to my watch, the time is now.”

It is All About Work-Life Balance

I know some people think work-life balance (WLB) is about spending equal time at work, home, and on matters they enjoy doing.  That is not how I think of WLB.  For me and my research, WLB is about aligning your day-to-day behaviors with your priorities in life.  From the thousands of firefighters that I have had the honor of training in my workshops, there are two universal priorities that seem to be in everyone’s top spots.  These two top priorities are good health and close family relationships.  We achieve good health by practicing effective self-care practices.  As a result of putting our self-care needs first, we are in a favorable position to focus on our families while experiencing great success in our firefighting careers.  Please remember:

Dr. Donnie once said,

Self-care will fuel a successful and fulfilling life

Let’s align our day-to-day behaviors

With our priorities in life.

We’ll be more effective with all the hats we wear

By experience work-life balance through self-care.


  1. 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.
  2. Barnett, J. E., Baker, E. K., Elman, N. S., & Schoener, G. R. (2007). In pursuit of wellness: The self-care imperative. Professional Psychology: Research and Practice, 38(6), 603-612. doi:10.1037/0735-7028.38.6.603
  3. Skovholt, T. M., & Trotter-Mathison, M. (2014). The resilient practitioner: Burnout prevention and self-care strategies for counselors, therapists, teachers, and health professionals. New York, NY: Routledge.
  4. Binnewies, C. (2016). Current perspectives on work—life balance: Moving toward a resource-oriented framework. Journal of Psychology, 224(1), 1-2. Retrieved from
  5. Allen, T. D., & Armstrong, J. (2006). Further examination of the link between work-family conflict and physical health: The role of health-related behaviors. American Behavioral Scientist, 49(9), 1204-1221. doi:10.1177/0002764206286386
  6. CDC, (n.d.).
  7. Parletta, Natalie, et al. “A Mediterranean-Style Dietary Intervention Supplemented with Fish Oil Improves Diet Quality and Mental Health in People with Depression: A Randomized Controlled Trial (HELFIMED).” Nutritional Neuroscience, vol. 22 no. 7, July 2019, pp. 474-487. EBSCOhost, doi.10.1080/1028415X.2017.1411320.
  8. Jacka, Felice N., et al. “Food Policies for Physical and Mental Health.” BMC Psychiatry, vol. 14, May 2014, p. 132. EBSCOhost, doi:10.1186/1471-244X-132.
  9. Weir, K. (2011, December). The exercise effect. Monitor on Psychology42(11).
  10. Hutchinson Jr, Donald L. Work-Life Balance Attributes of Self-Care with Authentic Leaders: A Multiple Case Study. Diss. University of Phoenix, 2019.

Dr. Donnie Hutchinson is an Army National Guard veteran, author, speaker, University of Dayton adjunct professor, Podcaster, and a Work-Life Balance instructor for the University of Dayton Center for Leadership who works with firefighters, law enforcement officers and other first responders on self-care and work-life balance programs to improve their success at home, work, and in life.

Dr. Donnie has a national presence with his work-life balance work delivering workshops for the past four years at the International Association of Fire Fighters (IAFF/ALTS) annual conferences.  He has also delivered numerous workshops and webinars for IAFC_SHS, local fire districts, Law Enforcement, EMS, and first responder state association organizations.

Dr. Donnie wrote Lead with Balance: How to Master Work-Life Balance in an Imbalanced Culture and co-authored Diversity and Inclusion in the Global Workplace: Aligning Initiative with Strategic Business Goals. His chapter on work-life balance addresses generational and cultural differences in managing employee work-life balance friendly policies.

Dr. Donnie is an active and proud father of four children and resides in Dayton, Ohio with his wife Marlene.  His son is a U.S Army combat veteran, part-time firefighter and is working on becoming a full-time firefighter.  His website is:

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