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Engaged, overextended, or burned out: What is the state of the disaster response workforce?

Kelsey L. Merlo, PhD, Kayla C. Jones, MA, Katrina M. Conen, BA, Elizabeth A. Dunn, MPH, CPH, Blake L. Scott, MPH, Jennifer Marshall, PhD, MPH, CPH


The prolonged coronavirus-2019 (COVID-19) pandemic and co-occurring disasters during 2020 took a toll on everyone, taxing public health and disaster management personnel particularly. This initial study evaluated levels of exhaustion, cynicism, and professional efficacy among a broad array of the disaster workforce responding to these events through an online survey. Responses were compared to normative standards from an international dataset using a one-sample t-test and described using k-means cluster analysis. Results from 111 emergency management and disaster services, public health, healthcare, first responders, and other professionals and volunteers indicated high levels of emotional exhaustion and cynicism, along with high levels of personal efficacy compared to normative samples. Perceptions of the heightened risk of contracting COVID-19 were significantly associated with increased emotional exhaustion and cynicism. Cluster analysis results indicated three different patterns of burnout: half of the respondents were overextended (high levels of emotional exhaustion, cynicism, and efficacy) or burned out (high emotional exhaustion and cynicism, low efficacy), while 50 percent were engaged (low emotional exhaustion, low cynicism, and high personal efficacy). This suggests that despite the COVID-19 pandemic, a substantial proportion of the disaster response workforce is still thriving. However, a large proportion is burned out or at high risk (overextended). Limitations of this study include a lack of diversity in the sample, which, although similar to the demographic characteristics of the emergency manager population, may limit the generalizability of the study results. System-level planners can use this information to develop comprehensive workforce approaches, policies, and procedures to prevent burnout for these essential personnel working behind the scenes.


burnout, disaster response, COVID-19, cluster analysis, exhaustion

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