Finding balance: How women first responders manage stressors of work, family and career

March 18, 2021

by Dr. Anna Courie - Director, Responder Wellness, FirstNet Program at AT&T

“I have this desire to be there for everyone and I often put myself last as a result”

~ Chief Donna Black, Duck Fire Department, NC

The bus didn’t come today. I’d just come back from my daily exercise and was preparing for my workday. I was running through a mental checklist of what needed to happen at home, at work, and with the kids for things to run smoothly.  My husband and I were juggling schedules.  A winter snowstorm had already shifted the schedule by two days. An unexpected dinner with old friends rearranged our meal planning. And the school decided it was time for the kids to return to hybrid learning in the middle of COVID. 

And then the bus didn’t show. So, as I was trying to get things in order for the day, the week, the minute, it was time to pivot. And right before I was due to leave for work and get the kids to school.

I’ve lived this story before, just a different day. That’s the case for many working women – especially those in public safety.

Donna Black, Fire Chief with the Duck, N.C., Fire Department, says finding balance is one of the things she struggles with daily. “I have this desire to be there for everyone and I often put myself last as a result,” she adds. “I never want to fail my firefighters.  I’ve had to learn as a leader that taking care of myself can help me take better care of my people.”

Juggling priorities

All first responders experience a mental burden from the work they do in public safety. But there is a special burden on women public safety servants.  Juggling work, career, family, and now COVID is exhausting.

We see you desiring to serve your communities and families and career.  We see you exhausted.  We see you frustrated. We see you questioning.  We see you stepping up anyway.

About 22% of women career firefighters and 39% of women volunteer firefighters are at risk for depression. About 60% drink more than the American Dietary Guidelines for alcohol intake. And many women in public safety report discrimination and social pressures from working in a male dominated profession.1 Suicidal ideation is slightly higher in women law enforcement officers than men.

Dr. Sara Metz, a clinical psychologist from Denver, Colorado, and owner of Owner of Code Four Counseling, says there’s a “gap in the research when it comes to female public safety servants.” But, she adds, “We know from a study of post 9/11 female veterans that there are differences in the male/female experience.” Some of these may be comparable to the women first responder experience:

“In terms of positive effects, a significant portion of women veterans’ report feelings of pride for having served their country.  They recognize benefits of having served, communicating they gained both personally and professionally through their military affiliation.  For example, being a service member assisted them in achieving a sense of self-improvement, and self-confidence, and excelling in life.  Impressively, the majority of female veterans reported that they would strongly encourage and guide a young individual they cared about to join the military….[however], a percentage of women…report struggling with posttraumatic stress disorder (42%).” 2

Prioritizing your health

We want you to continue to manage work, life, family, and COVID and see it as business as usual. We know you are wonder women. It’s also okay to be fragile. It’s okay to be tired. And it’s okay to be frustrated and maybe a bit burned out.

Being wonder woman isn’t about having it all – or having it all together. It’s about recognizing that it’s a balancing act. You can do it all. Just not all at once. That requires you to forgive yourself when you burn supper; or family dinner night turns into family cereal night. And it’s about prioritizing your health needs.

In all the different stories of trying to do it all in my life, there are three critical habits that got me through the valleys:

  1. I exercise daily.  My exercise is a scheduled component of my day.  I treat it like a requirement of my work, and I know it makes me better at the work that I do. My exercise is non-negotiable.

  2. I pray daily.  My day starts in prayer and meditation. My prayer life cultivates gratitude, meaning, and purpose in all that I do. My prayer life is non-negotiable.

  3. I talk to a therapist when I need help. I have experienced trauma – both personal and professional.  And there were times I just needed to talk to someone to get through it. Getting help is non-negotiable.

So, when people ask me “how do you do it all?” I pray, I exercise, I seek help, and I work hard. Just like you. In their book, “Burnout: The Secret to Unlocking the Stress Cycle,” Doctors Amelia and Emily Nagoski reflect that:

"Physical activity is the single most efficient strategy for combating the stress cycle.  It makes you feel incrementally better than you felt before you started. You can notice that something in your body has changed, shifted in the direction of peace after physical activity…Wellness is not a state of being but a state of action. It is the freedom to move fluidly through the cyclical experiences of being human…Connection-with friends, family, pets, the divine, etc.- is as necessary as food and water…Self-Compassion and gratitude empower us to recognize the different between who we are and who the world expects us to be, without beating ourselves up or shutting ourselves off from the world.” 3

 So, identify the non-negotiables in your life that enhance your wellness and help you do it all. We need women first responders.  On International Women’s Day and every day, we see you and we thank you. Public safety is better with you.

Acknowledgements: Dr. Courie would like to gratefully acknowledge the expertise and input of Dr. Sara Metz, Owner of Code Four Counseling; Chief Donna Black, Duck Fire Chief; Ms. Margie Moulin, Director of Emergency Communications Southern Oregon and current President of APCO International; Kathy O’Toole, former Chief, Seattle PD and Boston Commissioner; Debora Courtright, public safety consultant; and Ms. Michelle VanDeren, FirstNet Section Chief and former 9-1-1 emergency dispatcher.

Dr. Anna Courie, Director of Responder Wellness, FirstNet Program at AT&T is a nurse, Army wife, former adjunct professor, and author. Anna holds a Bachelor’s in Nursing from Clemson University; a Master’s in Nursing Education from the University of Wyoming; and a Doctor of Nursing Practice degree from Ohio State University. She is a passionate Clemson football fan; loves to read, cook, walk, hike; and prior to COVID-19, was an avid traveler.


2 Patten, E. & Parker, K. (2011). Women in the US military: Growing share, distinctive profile. Washington, DC. Pew Research Center.
3 Nagoski, E. and Nagoski, A. (2020). Burnout: The Secret to Unlocking the Stress Cycle. Ballantine Books.