Emergency Management Work-Life Balance

Perfectionists should not be emergency managers.

by Eric Holdeman / September 25, 2019

This is my IAEM Disaster Zone Column for August 2019:

Disaster Zone Column: Work-Life Balance in Emergency Management, August 2019

By Eric Holdeman

Work-life balance, it seems like it might be easy to achieve, but many an emergency manager has struggled with the challenges of achieving a balance between their duties and their personal lives.

Looking back over 32 years of emergency management experience, I can tell you that work-life balance has never been my forte, but perhaps there is something I can share on the topic that might help you, no matter where you are in your career progression. My current status is that of “recovering work-alcoholic.” Electric shock treatments from my wife is what finally allowed me to dial it back a bit.

Let’s start with those of you who are either in school now or perhaps you are an active volunteer looking to establish yourself as a professional emergency manager. What do you need to know before jumping into emergency management with both feet? My first observation is that it is not a profession for someone who is a perfectionist. There is little that is perfect in emergency management. You could become frustrated quickly if you want perfection. Then there is the issue of farming and emergency management. Farmers understand this — you are never done! There is always something that needs to be done. Plans not written, trainings not accomplished, insufficient procedures, grants to be submitted, all of these things that you know are not sufficient for the big disaster waiting to strike your community.

You could try working 24/7, but then you will collapse after a few days. How about just working seven days a week, eight hours a day? If you know of all these deficiencies, isn’t that what you should be doing? The answer of course is no. Setting priorities becomes the key and working on the important and less of the urgent things that interrupt your workday. Every person and every program must work this out for themselves based on priorities and what remains to be done, and there is always something left undone.

Work-life balance really comes to the fore when it is vacation time — which summer is supposed to be one of those times of the year where people and families get away for recreation and renewal. In the West it is also a time for wildfires that sweep across large swaths of land and sometimes into communities. Hurricanes and flooding are disasters that know summer to be a perfect time to arrive and interrupt one’s plans to get away.

Is it possible for you to “totally disconnect while on vacation?” No laptop, no smartphone. Some people can do this, I never could. This is particularly an issue for emergency management directors who have responsibility for a program. You can delegate the authority of your position to someone left running the shop, but you do retain the responsibility for what happens or doesn’t happen no matter if you are on vacation or not. One way to forcibly disconnect is to go into the wild where there isn’t any connectivity, off the grid in more ways than one. Out of sight, and out of mind.

Then there is the issue of how long to be gone — away from work? Most of what I’ve read says that to really disconnect and get both a physical and mental break from work requires two full weeks, 14 days of vacation. With a bit of seniority in a position you can usually get that much time off, and after being vested in a job, 4-6 weeks of vacation is not uncommon in government service. Americans are known for not taking all the vacation that they are due. Don’t leave your vacation time on the table. At a minimum, you can take a “staycation” where you hang around the house and do things with the family without being gone completely from your community.

When you are reading this, it is likely August. What vacation have you taken so far? Can you squeeze in another couple of days, maybe even two weeks?

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