Some people think about it from time to time. Some people dream about it. Some people can’t even imagine it. Some people already did it. What, you ask? Retirement. Are you ready?
After a career in public safety, you probably have an idea of the legacy you’ve built and the effect your departure will have on the agency. But have you thought about the impact leaving will have on you? Public safety agencies prepare for retirements though succession plans, but most do a very poor job preparing the actual retirees. And this matters, because retirement is not easy.
Dying for the Job
Perhaps public safety retirement is not easy because working in public safety itself is not easy. We lack good statistics about suicide among public safety personnel, but what we do know is alarming. Police and firefighters rank sixth on the Center for Disease Control’s list of occupations by suicide. One study showed firefighters are more likely to die from suicide than a line-of-duty death, and the number of firefighters lost to suicide has increased each year for the last five years. The Firefighter Behavioral Health Alliance has documented 175 firefighter retiree suicides—36 of whom took their lives in the first week of retirement.
It’s even worse for law enforcement. The occupational fatality rate of law enforcement officers is three to five times greater than the national average. As John Violanti documented in his 2014 book, Dying for the Job, male officers commit suicide at a rate 8.3 times greater than those who are murdered on the job, 3.1 times greater than those killed in work accidents, and 4 times greater than firefighters.
Contributing factors to suicide by public safety employees include:
- Shift work and sleep disorders. In addition to increasing your risk of arteriosclerosis, hypertension and cardiac problems, shift work has a recognized impact on psychological health. Officers working non-day shifts are 14 times more likely to sleep less than 6 hours per day and a 40-year-old study of suicide links shift work with suicidal ideation.
- Alcohol abuse. Although studies vary, some have shown as many as 25 percent of law enforcement officers in the United States abuse alcohol. Firefighters binge drink twice as often as the general population.
- PTSD and emotional trauma. Often, alcohol abuse among public safety personnel is an attempt to escape the emotional suffering of the job. None of us is immune to the stress caused by a career’s worth of emergency calls. For some, that stress becomes debilitating.
These contributing factors don’t disappear with retirement. In fact, they may get worse. In a way, retiring from public safety is much like a grieving process. We have made differences in people’s lives and when we retire it’s easy to lose that sense of purpose and believe our lives no longer have the same value. We feel like something has been taken from us and we lose our identity.
Note: Among all these statistics about firefighters and law enforcement officers, what is missing? If you said civilian employees, volunteers, support staff, EMTs, nurses, etc., you’re right! The number of people affected goes way up when you include—as we should—all members of public safety.
The Next Big Change
When we think about retirement, we think about the things we look forward to doing—travel, reading, sports, time with friends, church, volunteering and maybe even a part-time job. These are all wonderful ideas, but for public safety employees, retirement can be extremely difficult. Many public safety employees cannot even picture themselves outside the job. This isn’t what we do but who we are.
So when you retire, what will you miss? For starters, the people. This is a family, your family, one you’ve never been without and never want to be without. You’ll miss your partners, those you have worked beside and counted on, vented to, protected and leaned on, the ones who always had your back. There’s also the activity—the sights, smells, touches and tastes. Let’s not forget that adrenaline rush, hearing the dispatcher over the radio and the rush of getting to the call. And being part of something so great, something you never imagined being without.
Retirement is the next great adventure after all this. But it’s a mistake to look at your life and see a clear dividing line between your life in public safety and your life after public safety. In fact, retirement is another in a series of changes you’ve been experiencing your entire life.
Believe it or not, you have changed during your career. And I’m not just talking about your physique! You have changed physically, mentally, spiritually and emotionally. Maybe you’ve put on a few pounds. Have you grown more sluggish or more alert over the years? Has your faith become deeper and more personal, or has it waned? How do you deal with emotional turmoil now compared to 20 or 30 years ago?
Remember when you promoted? You probably asked your friends and family to not ever let you forget where you came from. You wanted to promote and be the best supervisor you could be, but you never wanted to be “one of them.” Now is a good time to remind yourself of that.
When you look at retirement as another in a series of changes, it’s possible to be as excited about retiring as you were about entering public safety when you were younger. Knowing that you have changed, believe that you can and will change again—mentally, physically, emotionally and spiritually. You are no longer part of your job even though the job is a huge part of who you have become. And that is not necessarily a bad thing.
Retirement requires preparation. The more you plan, the smoother this transition will go. Here are just a few considerations:
- Think about how you’ll spend your free time. Maybe it’s a second career, additional education or time with the grandkids. When you retire, you no longer answer to the clock or the phone. You have more free time than ever before. You have more time for that “honey do” list, and more time to spend with family and friends. And while free time is nice, it can also be terrifying to face an endless series of days with nothing you have to do.
- Discuss your schedule change with your family. Sure, they have always wished you didn’t work at night or on the holidays and they want you home more often. But when you retire you must fit into their schedules. Their schedules didn’t change, yours did. Do you fit or are you interfering?
- Prepare for a change in income. Even with a pension, retirement requires a clear-eyed look at your finances. You may need to see a financial counselor and develop a budget that accounts for expenses such as travel and healthcare. •
- Expect a hard hit. If you’re lucky, you won’t experience an emotional toll, but it’s best to be prepared for the loss of friends, loneliness, the feeling you’ve been forgotten and the concern that you didn’t leave the legacy you strived for. Exercise self-care and seek help if you see warning signs, such as emotional detachment, depression, spending too much alone time, abusing alcohol or drugs, or trying to stay involved in the job when you no longer have a place there.
Make sure you are ready to retire and don’t give in to outside influences. Go when you know the time is right for you! Don’t make a rushed, emotional decision. You’ve always controlled your career, now you must control your retirement—and your preparation for it.
Make It Count
It is easy to forget how much we love being needed until we no longer are. Watching the lights and hearing the sirens go somewhere without you is a bittersweet experience. Curiosity about the call, memories of past calls, and the desire to help all flood in.
Now, those of you who can’t wait to retire and don’t have to worry about any of this, I say hallelujah and lucky you! For the rest of us, attitude is everything. It is the key to understanding you are not who you were, that you earned this retirement and that you deserve to enjoy it. So, make it count! You love what you do or you would not be doing it. You were born with a servant’s heart. How can you put that to work in your retirement? After all, it’s retirement, not death!
As Charles Swindoll said, life is 10 percent what happens to us and 90 percent how we react to it. We may not be able to stop retirement from coming, but we can choose how we react to it.
So here’s to a happy, healthy retirement—and on to the greatest adventure of all!