We all know that this lifestyle means long hours and lots of stress. Loss of sleep only impacts stress further. When does stress become burnout?


We all know that this lifestyle means long hours and lots of stress. Loss of sleep only impacts stress further.  When does stress become burnout?

Burnout is oftentimes a precursor to more serious mental health issues. If we could catch burnout or even work to prevent burnout, officers would be safer on the job and relationships are potentially more stable. If spouses could catch burnout, they might continue to have patience and compassion.  With burnout, we all wear a little thin.

How do we identify burnout?  How is law enforcement burnout unique?  What can we do if we already realize we are in burnout?  How can we reverse the impact?

Deana Kahle, LMFT, shares her story of burnout after serving to support mass multiple incidents.  She shares the impact, her story of recovery, and how you can address it if you are amid burnout or want to prevent it.

What is burnout?

Burnout is now a diagnosis listed in the International Classification of Diseases. It is caused by employment or lack of employment, with the common thread being work you are doing for something outside of yourself.

There are three qualifiers of burnout: exhaustion, cynicism, and decreased efficacy.

Exhaustion is a depletion of dopamine that leads to a loss of motivation. When people are in burnout, they lack dopamine.  The body starts to power down to preserve energy and clean up any existing inflammation. Rest and recovery are needed to heal the body; however, officers on shift keep pushing through, running on minimal sleep with constant disturbances in their sleep cycle. Spouses do the same because there is not a choice to rest.  They must continue to push as well.  This pattern does not offer or encourage rest and recovery in the body. Burnout becomes this overwhelming and overarching sense of exhaustion and fatigue, along with the mindset of cynicism and negativity.

These thought patterns start to sound like hopelessness and helplessness, which can lead to depression.

“Depletion of dopamine is the same thing that happens with depression. Unaddressed burnout leads to more serious mental health situations.” Cyndi Doyle

Cynicism is having negativity towards the work you are doing. It is how officers see the world due to the impact of the career. At times, cynicism spills over into their personal lives and affects how they see themselves and their relationships.

Decreased efficacy or the ability to do your job well is the last qualifier of burnout. It is about recognizing that you’re letting tasks go incomplete, feeling like you can’t work, and that what you’re doing isn’t making a difference.

What does burnout look like in law enforcement?


After experiencing several mass casualties and personal issues that led to panic attacks, Deana found herself experiencing symptoms of burnout. She talks about feeling like she was in a pot of boiling water; each incident she experienced was equivalent to turning up the temperature until she could not take it anymore.

“I woke up and I was 70 pounds overweight, and I wasn’t sleeping. I had no friends, and it was easy to cry emotionally, and there was a bleed over now from my work to my home. I couldn’t turn it off anymore. I couldn’t stop thinking about the calls and people and officers that I was serving. I couldn’t say no. I didn’t know how to say no.  I said yes all the time. Yes, even when I should have said no, I didn’t.  didn’t know that I could.

Deana decided to seek out help and recognized that as much as she loved helping others, she was more important than anybody.

The difference between burnout and PTSD

There can be a very big gray line between burnout and PTSD. When thinking about both, understand that burnout is caused by the work and PTSD is caused by traumatic experiences.  The number one symptom of burnout is exhaustion, and the number one symptom of PTSD is avoidance. Burnout is usually gradual over a period of time.  While complex PTSD can build over a period of time, PTSD can occur after a single incident or event.  In burnout and PTSD, there can be feelings of being numb.  In burnout, we are not numb by choice but rather because we press on.

What to do if you see burnout in your relationship.

If you are a spouse seeing elements of burnout in your officer, point out their behavior. What are you seeing? Don’t say, “Hey, you’re being an asshole,” but instead say,

 “Hey, it seems like you’re exhausted lately. It seems like you’re really short lately.” Whatever you choose to say, identify the behaviors of burnout without being critical. Check in with your spouse and be supportive of each other.

The critical thing to know about burnout is that it’s not necessarily the job causing it. It may be a contributing factor, but NOT the root cause.

Your belief system is the cause, and to avoid burnout, wellness habits must be prioritized.

Habits of wellness to avoid burnout in law enforcement

The How

First, the body needs to be addressed. The first steps are often addressing sleep and /or weight through nutrition, activity, and sleep hygiene. Handle one element at a time.  If you can and are willing, start with the thing causing the most damage. If sleep disturbance is the number one issue, identify the physical factors contributing to the sleep disturbance. It could be chronic inflammation, sleep apnea, high blood pressure, or high blood sugar. If your body needs an overhaul, find a doctor who will address the causes of all these things that are not working rather than throwing a pill at you to treat this symptom.

Learn sleep hygiene and how to create boundaries around sleep. Find healthy habits that work for you. This will not happen overnight. It will take time!

The What 

Prioritizing wellness is a perspective shift and mindfulness training. It is getting clear on what you’re doing and getting clear on your thoughts.

What am I thinking?

What am I believing?

What is true?

What is false?

What is workable?

What is sustainable?

What is not sustainable?

The “what” is a complete overhaul of your beliefs and thoughts.  Get in tune with yourself. Identify and address negative belief systems and “stinking thinking” or cognitive distortions. If you can’t change your circumstances, you have to change the way you look at your circumstances. It is not sustainable to wake up every day and say, “I hate my job.” Change your perspective to one of being able to wake up every day and associate a positive outcome of your job with your new perspective.

The Why

“He who has a why to live can bear almost any how.” – Nietzsche

The “why” is your mission statement. It is your reason for getting out of bed.  Your reason for living. Create a mission statement where you are focused on the moment and not the larger picture.  A common theme in the first responder community is that your work doesn’t seem to matter because people still suffer. A change in belief and perception can change the feeling associated with that situation.  Focus on the moment and the person instead of the whole.  Accept and appreciate that your purpose may be fulfilled if you touch one life, not every person on this planet.

Officers and spouses experience burnout in different ways for different reasons.  Whether it is the work of the job or the work that comes from carrying the load, the potential for burnout in our relationships is great.  We want to counter the impact of burnout on each other and our relationships. Addressing the how, what, and why of burnout can help identify the areas of your life where burnout is occurring and set up a roadmap to combat the effects. Connect with your spouse for support, and if needed, contact a professional. Remember, “Heroes don’t do this alone.”

Deana Kahle is a licensed management family therapist trained in EMDR. She is certified in critical instance stress management and a trained instructor through AICC for POST, Peace Officer Standard Training. She has worked closely with many law enforcement and fire service agencies, including the Department of Homeland Security and the US Forest Service. She’s responded to multiple major critical incidences and mass casualties, including the 2013 Los Angeles International Airport shooting, the 2017 Vegas shooting, and the 18 Montecito mudslide in Santa Barbara, California.

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We all know that this lifestyle means long hours and lots of stress. Loss of sleep only impacts stress further. When does stress become burnout?