Bill Briggs had worked as a paramedic for more than three decades when, during Victoria’s second extended Covid lockdown, he “lost the plot”.
“I was just plodding along, doing the job, not getting any complaints from anyone, and then I had a disagreement with another paramedic, and I just exploded, which is not like me at all,” Briggs says.
“I took a few days off, thought it through, and realized I was not right in the head. It had crept up on me, but my boss told me he thought I’d been a bit off for the last few months.”
A psychologist told Briggs he was suffering burnout and other stress-related conditions and is now receiving workers’ compensation while on leave. He had been working long shifts, responding to as many as 18 patients with Covid each day while fearing he would pass the virus on to his wife.
Despite loving the job, he is now planning to retire.
“Catching up with other paramedics recently, I know a lot of them are making plans to get out within the next couple [of] years,” says Briggs.
A mass resignation could be imminent, according to a new survey that shows plummeting morale among paramedics.
The survey, carried out by Swinburne University and RMIT academics between September and October 2021, found just 42% of 348 Ambulance Victoria respondents reported being satisfied with their jobs, down from 62% in 2020.
After 32 years as a paramedic, Bill Briggs plans to retire due to burnout. Photograph: Supplied
Sixteen percent of paramedics said they intended to seek new employment opportunities in the next year, up from 9% in 2020, while almost half (45%) said they often think about quitting, up from 29%.
“We are fatigued; Covid has broken us mentally and physically … I see many experienced paramedics looking at alternative careers,” one respondent says.
Another says: “I don’t feel appreciated or respected in my job. Every day I think of other jobs I could do because I feel such a lack of value in my role.”
Paramedics continue to face sustained pressure due to increased demand and staff shortages caused by Covid and flu cases, leading to red code declarations. The most recent code red occurred Tuesday.
Dr. Lara Thynne, a researcher at Swinburne University, says paramedics may feel more confident in changing careers now that lockdowns have ended.
“Now that the job market has stabilized and there’s a lot of demand for other workers, paramedics have much more of an ability to leave their roles,” she says.
“Ambulance Victoria has a serious challenge ahead of them to retain this highly skilled workforce.”
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The high workload was a constant complaint among those surveyed, with 70% saying they often have to do more work than they can do well.
This is resulting in burnout, researchers say. About 76% of respondents reported they often or always felt worn out at the end of their day, while 55% were often or always exhausted in the morning at the thought of another day at work.
However, within the team environment, psychological safety was found to be strong, with most paramedics feeling supported by their colleagues.
Secretary of the Victorian Ambulance Union, Danny Hill, says the results confirm what members have told him for some time.
“We will face a massive exodus of the ambulance workforce if we don’t see their working conditions improve. That means better rosters, a fairer workplace, and safe workloads,” he says.
He says members were also concerned they would be disciplined or even criticized publicly if they made a clinical error – which is a fear expressed by 72% of survey respondents.
“The job is already stressful, but the scrutiny paramedics face just ratchets that stress even further,” Hill says.
“The last few years have been so brutal that workforce retention will likely be our next major challenge.”