The Impact Of Disillusionment

“ Once he thought he had concluded that it would be better to get killed directly and end his troubles. Regarding death thus out of the corner of his eye, he conceived it to be nothing but rest. His mind was undergoing a subtle change. It took moments for it to cast off its battleful ways and resume its accustomed course of thought. Gradually his brain emerged from the clogged clouds, and at last he was enabled to more closely comprehend himself and circumstance”

– Red Badge of Courage, Stephen Crane

Stephen Crane, in his novel, the Red Badge of Courage, shows Henry Fleming, the protagonist, suffering the effects of stress and burnout. Henry finds himself reflecting on whether it would be better to be dead than carry on for another day. Henry has surrendered his identity to the war and decides that death is preferable to the daily turmoil he faces. This situation may sound eerily familiar to those serving in the armed forces or public protection. Several have faced this dilemma. Their days are fraught with intense pressure and personal risk. This leaves them drained at the end of the day and often leaves them debating whether they can continue.  Those individuals employed in security, law enforcement, or military positions, observe the most perverse and evil parts of the human psyche. They are constantly bombarded by images of cruelty, conflict, and death. Yet during this despondency and conflict they are supposed to remain unperturbed and make sure they do not “Dishonor the Uniform.” The sheer energy it takes to stay calm and in control in the face of such behavior is a major drain on their psychological and physical resources. The need for effective mental conditioning training in the military and in public safety has never been greater than at this time.

Many enter the security professions because they are enticed by the prospect of protecting and helping others. During their initial training a symbiotic identity emerges between their personal and professional life. These individuals accept the hazards of the profession because of the personal rewards it affords them. The work becomes interesting, personally rewarding and professionally satisfying. However, over time, the luster fades and the individual undergoes a metamorphosis. This metamorphosis results in burnout.  Burnout is a psychological term that refers to the long-term exhaustion and diminished interest in work. Often the first sign one will notice is that they have great difficulty in calming down once they are home. Activities that once provided enjoyment are now replaced with passive activities such as watching TV or listening to music. When questioned about the job, a simple, “It was fine,” becomes the answer, instead of a detailed summary of the day. This person is demonstrating a biologically encapsulated coping mechanism to protect them from their daily environment.

Offered a glimpse into the most inhumane levels of humanity, military and public safety employees keep a vigilant eye on personal fallout. This self-monitoring is done to protect family and friends from their professional life. Rules and Standard Operating Procedures along with strong peer support regulate conduct during the working hours. All day long one must suppress their statements and discipline their actions. Once home, when they come through the door, this pressure is dumped on those around them. Fearful that families will suffer the emotional fallout that they themselves are experiencing, they choose to withdraw from their once safe environment.

Coworkers and individuals must become attuned to certain behaviors that indicate an increased level of stress leading to burnout. The signs of burnout, according to the American Psychological Association, include:  sleep disruption, excuse making, agitation or argumentative behavior, and increasingly hazardous behavior.[1]  Maintaining effective and honest communication with your coworker is paramount. Even if you know the person is tactically proficient, their presence of mind has placed them in a “clog of clouds,” as Stephen Crane states in the Red Badge of Courage. In a security situation, this could result in death or dismemberment for either you or them.

The factors that contribute to burnout are numerous. There are the power struggles that go on behind the scenes at work such as conflict with peers and supervisors. Disillusionment with the organization swamps the good intentions that once dedicated employees brought to the organization.  Another factor is the feeling of impotence. Once they wished to save the world, now they just want get through the day. Work has become routine and predictable with little stimulation and no visible impact on the criminal situation. Another factor leading to burnout is the required administrative tasks. Report writing, training and planning are viewed as interruptions to doing one’s “real work.” These administrative duties, often completed after working hours, prohibit the individual from having a life outside of the work environment.

The impact of burnout is not only detrimental to the individual, but also to those around them. Burnout strikes at the professional identity of the military or public safety personnel, which results in loss of innocence and compassion. The individual suffering from burnout may have an identity crisis as they try to reconcile their current state with past performance. They may see themselves as not up to the demands of the job and impotent. The impact of viewing oneself as impotent could result in hazardous behaviors. First the individual takes short cuts, because in their mind, they have seen this situation before and know how it will end. This results in them not being mentally prepared to address an unforeseen situation. An example of this would be a corrections officer stabbed serving an inmate a meal. On the other end of the spectrum, the individual may become reckless and unnecessarily take risk. An example of this could be not calling for back up or support because you want to push the envelope for the thrill.

The employing agency will also be impacted by burnout. As the individual’s behavior deteriorates, they become a civil or criminal liability to the parent organization. The battle for hearts and minds is one fight military or public safety agencies can lose in a minute and take years to regain that credibility.

Burnout Treatment

There are many ways to counteract the angst of burnout and manage the transformations that are part of the burnout faced by military and public safety personnel.  Lt. Colonel Grossman, in On Killing espoused the need to address and recognize when a person is denying their emotions.[2]  If you are frustrated, angry or depressed, admit it to yourself and those around you. This does not make you weak. This self-disclosure provides a needed catharsis.  Another way to control for burnout is to get some sleep. Psychologist F.C. Bartlett found that there is no general condition which is more likely to produce nervous or mental disorders than a state of prolonged fatigue. The need for military and public safety employees to constantly remain in a state of arousal of “fight or flight” drains them of needed energy reserves. These reserves can only be replenished with adequate rest and proper nutrition. Exercise is another proven method to elevate burnout. When selecting an exercise, select one that is not career-related. For example, there is a direct transference of skills between engaging in mixed martial arts or weight lifting to your professional career. However these activities do not allow your mind to escape your work environment. Instead try Yoga, bike riding, or rowing, as this will allow your mind to take a break from the rigors of the day. When confronting burnout look for a small victory each day. This victory is whatever objective you set for yourself that day.


[1] Bailey, D.S. (2006). Burnout harms workers’ physical health through many pathways. 37(6), 11. Retrieved from http://www.apa.org/monitor/jun06/burnout.aspx

[2] Grossman, D. (1996). On Killing. New York: Little, Brown and Company.

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