Paramedic Dean Adams was coming home from a 12-hour night shift during which a patient had threatened to murder him when he realised something had to give.
He’d barely had time to use the toilet, let alone eat anything that night, as his crew was sent from job to job — culminating in treating a man who’d assaulted a police officer, and then turned on him.
In his three years since starting as a paramedic, Mr Adams has seen the workload increase dramatically.
“The relentlessness was just unsustainable going forward, and for me that was evidenced by sleeping difficulties … it was impacting my eating patterns,” he said.
He was dreading going to work, especially to back-to-back 12-hour night shifts.
He stopped seeing friends and felt drained.
“I think we all strive to provide the best care to our patients … but there’s times where you’ve been working for 10-12 hours and you haven’t had time to stop and recover … and that’s when it becomes dangerous,” he said.
A new study, led by researchers at Swinburne and RMIT universities and obtained exclusively by the ABC, has found that like Mr Adams, many Ambulance Victoria employees are at breaking point.
More than a third feel burnt out by their work, and 10 per cent are looking to leave the profession in the next year.
Almost one in 10 are exhibiting stress levels comparable to having a severe psychological disorder, while a quarter report being under moderate levels of psychological distress.
In comparison, previous studies have found less than 13 per cent of the general population exhibits similar distress levels.
Report author Peter Holland said the research pointed to a dangerous level of emotional exhaustion in the workforce, far beyond anything he’d seen in his previous studies on nurses in hospitals.
“They’re under very significant levels of stress, to the extent that some of these people need some help themselves in that sense,” Professor Holland said.
The survey of 663 staff — about 17 per cent of on-road Ambulance Victoria employees — was completed in September last year during Melbourne’s second COVID-19 lockdown.
But Professor Holland and co-author Lara Thynne believe the situation would not have changed since that time because workloads had increased dramatically since the lockdown ended.
“If anything, things have gotten worse,” Dr Thynne said.
She said while being a paramedic was always a high-intensity job, the research found recent trends of missing meal breaks, working overtime, and gruelling night shifts with no rest time were taking their toll.
“The damage is the emotional effects on paramedics outside work. We know paramedics [already] have higher rates of suicide, and higher rates of marriage breakdown,” she said.
Since the COVID-19 lockdown ended, Victoria’s health system has been under strain, with demand for ambulances skyrocketing.
Victoria’s hospital emergency departments are full, which leads to ramping — a situation where paramedics care for a patient in the ambulance outside a hospital until a bed becomes available inside.
This in turn prevents the crew from attending emergencies in the community.
Pair that with an increase in call-outs in recent months, and ambulance wait times are now at their worst levels in six years, according to new quarterly data.
The deadly consequences of this were evident two weeks ago, when 32-year-old Christina Lackmann died after waiting six hours for an ambulance.
It prompted the Victorian government on Friday to announce more than $750 million in the upcoming budget for more paramedics, better systems to deal with non-urgent emergency calls, and better access to beds in emergency departments.
The exact reasons for increased call-outs are not known, but Danny Hill from the Victorian Ambulance Union said his members were seeing more patients with chronic illnesses who had let their treatment go during the pandemic.
He also believes his members are increasingly taking patients who don’t need further care to hospital, because the paramedics fear they won’t be supported by Ambulance Victoria if the patient later suffers an adverse event.
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