Burned Out in Safety: My Personal Experiences and Suggested Solutions

Career burnout.

Burnout isn’t just a bad day. Left untreated it can fester and infect your entire life. It happens for various reasons, at different stages of a career, and solutions vary enormously. I don’t think it comes from a lack of passion, character, or work ethic. I do think it must be approached like boxing: You will get knocked down and you must get back up.

Here are a few specific times in my EHS career where I’ve felt burnout and how I found a way out.

  1. My first two years in safety were disappointing (at best). I’d just left a job in aircraft maintenance where the work was visible (an airplane), the job had a beginning and an end point (remove and replace an engine), and success was recurring (the plane functioned properly afterwards). I quickly found that safety had none of these qualities.

My solution: I found mentors. People who’d exceled in safety over the long-term. They helped me to measure success differently and find value in the process. They taught me to think big-picture about programs, culture, and professional progression.

  1. At nine years in the military, I received unaccompanied short-tour orders (translated: I had to go to a remote location around the globe, without my family, for 15 months). I had a choice to stay in and accept the orders or leave the military within the year. After a week of little sleep and a reevaluation of my entire life up to that point, I decided to stay in and take the orders.

My solution: I refocused. I decided to complete an MBA during my time away and committed myself to finding a way to do EHS better.

  1. I had seven years in EHS when I felt it again. I’d run every program, inspected every area, and investigated (it seemed) every type of mishap. There was nothing new to learn. I was bored and I wanted out.

My solution: I saved money. I decided that if I ever wanted a different career, I’d need the financial wherewithal during the transition. I committed to save upwards of 30% of my income annually. It added up quickly and gave me a feeling of freedom I hadn’t quite expected. When I didn’t need the money anymore, the job became fun. I went to work because I wanted to and not for the paycheck. This practice and feeling continues even today.

  1. I became the Air Force’s Safety career field manager. While the job description is long, it essentially means you have a whole lot of responsibility for the 750+ Airmen in the safety career field. I loved the opportunity to make a difference, but all I saw was an office job and felt immediately disconnected.

My solution: I called Airmen. When management of the career field felt too distant from reality, too disconnected from people, I called Airmen to ask them about their base, their work, and their careers. I still do. I open up my global roster, pick three names at random, and call them on the phone. I find it refocuses me on what really matters, connects me with current issues, and clarifies priorities. It’s become one of my favorite parts of the job.

Burnout isn’t easy to admit, let alone talk about or work through. But it’s commonplace in any career-field where the work is complex and difficult (medical doctors, attorneys, politicians, social work, etc.).

What do you struggle with? What solutions have you tried (successfully or not?)

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