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Work-Life Balance

On this episode of The USFA Podcast, Dr. Donnie Hutchinson, renowned author and online coach, discusses work-life balance and his 3-step process to help you achieve it.

Posted: May 16, 2024

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On this episode of The USFA Podcast, Dr. Donnie Hutchinson, renowned author and online coach, discusses work-life balance and his 3-step process to help you achieve it.

Photos of firefighters laughing

Listen online 27:37

Photos of firefighters laughing


Estimated 17 min reading time.

Teresa Neal

Welcome to the USFA Podcast, the official podcast of the U.S. Fire Administration. I'm your host, Teresa Neal. On this episode, we'll discuss work-life balance. The online dictionary defines work-life balance as the division of one's time and focus between working and family or leisure activities. But what I find very telling about the example that they give on how to use the word is “He needs to get his work-life balance right.”

Which, come on, don't we all? To be honest, I often feel the concept is out of reach. If I give all that I feel like I need to give to my work, my family feels a little bit slighted, and when I focus on my family, I know things at work tend to pile up. I think the balancing act is even harder for first responders, but our guest, Dr. Donnie Hutchinson, is recognized as a top work-life balance speaker, author and online coach who works with firefighters, police officers and EMS first responders.

Dr. Hutchinson works with individuals and departments on self-care and work-life balance strategies to help them be effective at work and at home. He teaches you the knowledge, then takes that next step so that you have a step-by-step strategies to actually implement your plans and tactics. He graduated from Manchester University and served in the Army National Guard. Thank you for your service and thank you Dr. Hutchinson for joining us today.

Dr. Donnie Hutchinson

You're welcome, Teresa. Thank you for having me.

Teresa Neal

So, you heard me say that even the definition of work-life balance off of kind of throws it under the bus — that that's just about impossible. But I know that you have found ways and tactics to help people and especially the first responders who — you know, I think it's a little bit harder for them than just the average person because they give so much to their job.

And then I think you could really walk away from that feeling depleted that when you come home, you just want to kind of have everything given to you. You know, kind of absorb all the good vibes instead of what happens in the family, what happens in your life with your friends or your family. So, for you, what is work-life balance?

Dr. Donnie Hutchinson

Well, I think that's a great place to start because I do not agree with the Webster's Dictionary, that it's a division of time. Now they do have an important word in there if they use the word energy, but it's not really about it. This isn't about time. When work-life balance first started back in the 1970s, what happened was is that we started having work-life conflicts in life and it was actually when the second parent in the family, typically it was the female, that went into the workforce in the early 1970s and then it was oftentimes with family.

So, it was the mother going to work full-time, yet also having the children at home and having that dual role of full-time employee, manager or, you know, business owner, what have you. And then also the full-time, back in those days, 5 decades ago, the full-time caretaker for the most part. Right? So, it came into work-life conflict.

Like, oh my gosh, I'm in conflict. I have a time conflict. I can't be in 2 places at the same time, but then I have an energy conflict because — and this still happens today, right? Especially with first responders, as you were mentioning that they get wiped out, right? We get wiped out physically of energy and also mentally and emotional energy. Right? And then when we go home after a long day like that, is there anyone at home that wants our energy? You know, of course there is.

Teresa Neal

Of course not. They just want to give you energy the whole time.

Dr. Donnie Hutchinson

Oh, sure. You know, and then — sometimes, are we more irritable or we're more grumpy and grouchy — and, yes.

Does that make us bad people? No, it makes us human. Right? So, go back to your question. What is work-life balance? I think the definition that I use is, simply, I pose it as a question for people and it'd be like this, Teresa. So, it'd be like, are your daily behaviors in alignment with your priorities in life?

Because when we think about that — what? Oh, wait a minute. Our priorities in life. What? Well, wait a minute. I haven't thought about priorities in quite some time. You know, that's the way usually we go in life because we get running really hard in our careers. And sometimes — we don’t always step back sometimes and reflect on — wait a minute. What are my priorities today? You know, and that’s where I try to help people, is that, hey, what are your daily behaviors and do they support your priorities in life? And sometimes the best place to start is to rediscover what one's priorities are in life. And that's where I think we start with work-life balance, is simply that part of it.

And as you could tell, I could go on and on and on, but if I do, you'd never get another question.

Teresa Neal

So, what is work-life balance? Is it achievable for firefighters or first responders?

Dr. Donnie Hutchinson

Oh, absolutely. Yes. Oh my gosh, it's achievable. You know, you talked about how it's more difficult for firefighters and all first responders out there. There's a little irony in that first responders, they take an oath to serve and protect their communities, don't they?

Sometimes they might fail to recognize that they and their families are a part of that community. And we start thinking about, oh, wait a minute. I'm supposed to serve and protect others, but wait a minute. I'm in that community too. So, how do I serve myself, right? Because when I served myself as a public safety officer, public servant, what do we experience?

Well, wait a minute. I sort of feel guilty about doing something for myself, right? That's a very natural feeling that a lot of first responders have — that, well, wait a minute, I'm gonna feel guilty if I take extra time to exercise or extra time to eat healthy or anything. Just, you know, part of that self-care package, right?

But is it achievable? Absolutely, it's achievable. But there's a formula, though, that I think if ones that sign up for, it's more like a philosophy and research-based though, right? It's a — the research-based pieces is the greater we take care of ourselves, our physical health, mental, social, spiritual health, the more effective we can be in our careers as firefighters and other first responders, as well as with our families.

And it all starts when we start recognizing that that physical health, mental health, social and spiritual health, the 4 pillars, if you will. If we start recognizing that that becomes our foundation that our career and our families are built on, then that is that recipe for sustainable work-life balance or sustainable success in life. You know, because we're talking and on Zoom together, and I can see you, you can see me.

We can see that we both have had, you know, a few years in the workforce at this point, right?

Teresa Neal

What are you talking about? I am so super young.

Dr. Donnie Hutchinson

We definitely know and have seen and witnessed people climb the corporate ladder with — they're in the fire department, whether in a staff job, in the administration, anywhere, right?

They climb that corporate ladder, yet the family health or your health goes, your physical health or with firefighters, you know, physical and mental health, you know. They witness all and they're there to — they're the public's helpers, right, and heroes to help them through the most treacherous times in the public's lives.

They're there to help, and they see and witness, as we all know, and they go through these things. And when they do that, it takes a toll on them. But when we make the foundation self-care again, at physical, mental, social, spiritual health, when we make that foundation, it helps provide us with more resiliency that we can bounce back.

We can heal quicker, our injuries heal quicker and all of that. But again, it comes down to really absorbing the philosophy that self-care is the foundation that we build, not just our success, right? And our careers, in our families. But when we do that as a collective unit, all of a sudden our communities are healthier, right?

And wouldn't it be, you know — I have a vision, pretty picture in my mind — wouldn't it be just awesome to have the fire service to be the leaders in improving all the health benefits, mental, physical health. Because the rates of physical health issues is greater with cancer and cardiovascular disease, as we know, and the mental health.

I mean, it's greater than the population as a whole, yet wouldn't it be an awesome thing if they became the leaders on how to get proactive at this and turn their communities around? And that's really a dream that I have is to help them start being proactive in behavioral health, because that's what it is, really, when we align our daily behaviors, like, today, right now.

Okay, what behaviors do I need to do today that are going to support my priorities in life, and doing this teaching for years and years now and training thousands of people? I tell people I'm never here to tell you what your priorities ought to be, but I will tell you what 99% of others’ in your boots are.

It's their health, all aspects of health, and their family. They're always at the top of the list, right? It's just sometimes we forget that they're there.

Teresa Neal

So, what are the benefits and why is this balance so important?

Dr. Donnie Hutchinson

Well, the benefits is that we want to — I want others to enjoy the ride.

My son's a firefighter, 2 years in the fire service. He's a former U.S. Army, Afghan War vet, 82nd Airborne, combat veteran. Became a firefighter through my guidance, him asking me, "Hey, what should I do?" And I thought, this will be a great career. And what do I want for him?

The benefits. I want him to live a balanced life. Now, he's a single guy. So, I tell him, grab the overtime, you know, grab it. You don't have anyone to account for other than yourself at this point, so take advantage of it, grab the overtime. He exercises all the time. And stay fit. Keep that self-care going because the benefits of this work-life balance life, if you will, is that you'll enjoy the journey in your career, and you'll be healthier.

Teresa Neal

And it's different for different ages that you are. Like you said, your son doesn't have a family. So, he can take a lot of the overtime, you know? He can raise his hand for all the overtime, and he has plenty of time to exercise, and he can have friends, and, you know, it's a little bit different.

So, I think sometimes it's almost like if you build it when they're younger and when you have less demands on you, that when you move to the areas of your life, when he does get married, when he does have children, he's already made those habits and they pay dividends later on.

Dr. Donnie Hutchinson

Oh, you're absolutely right. Yeah. It's all about those habits, right? Those daily routines that we get ourselves in. And one of the things that I like to stress is that it's just not our physical habits, you know, our exercise, how we're eating, our alcohol limits, our hydration, you know, those kinds of things. Those are all physical habits, but it's also those mental habits. You know, are we practicing mental fitness? That's a term that I just absolutely love, proactive mental fitness. You know, are we practicing gratitude? Are we practicing thinking positive thoughts, expecting positive outcomes? When we get a negative thought in our minds, are we telling ourselves, “I reject that thought,” and you flip it upside down 180 degrees and say, "What’s the positive outcome?”

You know, because that is the other piece where I think we're going to make great strides in this behavioral health/work-life balance area, is really working on mental fitness. Because all this stuff spills over — you know how it feels after you exercise for a good amount of time, you know, fairly rigorous type exercise or even just going out on a long walk? You feel better. It reduces stress, you become more creative, you make better decisions, you make quicker decisions — this is all physiologically studied.

But what's the key there is that it spills over, right? What we do in our physical life spills over into our mental and social lives, and such as what we do, maybe our spiritual life, prayer, meditation can spill over into our mental health lives. And all of this is interrelated, mind, body, spirit. So, that's where I think we can start. We know exercise helps.

And eating healthy. I mean, we know that, but we're just beginning to really learn that, okay, I've heard about journaling. Okay, I've heard about being grateful, and stuff like that, but I don't mean just hearing about it. I mean, really doing it. Doing it as a workout.

Teresa Neal

It's an exercise. It is an exercise, just like you said, that if you are having bad thoughts or you're stuck in a loop where you know that it's just, you're just kind of spinning on itself. Being able to say, okay, wait, stop, I got to step back here. What's going on? What am I doing that's, that's not benefiting me? What is spurring on, am I staying up too late, am I watching too much garbage TV, you know, all of these things so that you stop spinning, and that's a practice because if not, we just go through life thinking, I just feel like this. I just feel like this and I know years ago someone told me that feelings don't have brains, so you can't let them rule you. Your feeling is just a feeling. You get to tell that feeling, okay, I'm gonna accept this or I'm not going to accept it. Nah, I'm not trying to be Pollyanna.

I know there are extreme cases and there are all kinds of other things. But just that daily something bad happened, or I heard something that aggravated me. Okay, am I going to run with that aggravation or am I going to stop it? And say, okay, I don't need that aggravation and walk away from it.

Dr. Donnie Hutchinson

You're absolutely right. And, you know, you talked about like the garbage TV, but a thing today, of course, with us, with our children, with small children, it's social media. Right? And, oh, I mean, that could be an episode in and of itself, just talking about the dangers of social media and, when people say, I don't have time to exercise. Oh, really? Check your iPhone or your Android and see how much screen time you have.

Teresa Neal

Yeah, exactly. That's what I tell myself sometimes when I like, well, I don't have time to do that. And then I'll sit down and I'll realize that 45 minutes has gone by of me scrolling through. And I'm like, okay, I think I need to reevaluate my time.

Dr. Donnie Hutchinson

Exactly. Yes.

Teresa Neal

So, how do you begin to improve your work-life balance?

Dr. Donnie Hutchinson

Yeah, that's a great question. It can be different for everyone, but I think one is to start looking at some of the low-hanging fruit. What kind of changes can you make now? As I mentioned about that spillover, you know, I talked about when you exercise, it helps you feel better, from a mental health and emotional health perspective, but sometimes it's wise to explore, do a little reflection on current reality, you know, take a little current reality check. And one of those areas can be, where's your negative spillover happening?

You know, if you're always coming home tired, grumpy and things like that, if you have a lot of calls at night, you're going to come home tired. You are, okay. If you're just up at night because you're on social media, scrolling as you, we, were just talking about, that's a different story, right?

It's a controllable versus a non-controllable, but maybe just check some of this low-hanging fruit. Perhaps it is you're going too long without eating, or whatever it may be. I think sometimes looking at that negative spillover, what 1 thing can I change that could stop some negative outcomes happening in my life?

That's one area. Another area though, of how to achieve it is really step back and just start reflecting on what are your priorities in life. Cause as you mentioned earlier in the podcast, is that it's different for where we are in life. You know, it's different for me than it is for my son. And we all are different, but just stepping back and say, hey, what are my priorities?

And it could be, wow, I would like to spend more time with my spouse. I'd like to spend more time with my children. You know, I keep telling my son, I'm going to make it to that Friday night football game, but I only made 1 last year. Could I maybe swap a shift with someone so I could catch Friday night football?

Yeah, cause those kids never forget, right? They want you there. They love it. They'll never forget when you show up and you know, it's just simple things like that sometimes. It's to start looking at what are my priorities, what are my behaviors and how can I make a little shift because when you really go through a process, you really take that inventory of current reality.

How are things in your health, mind, body, spirit? How are things socially? How are things with your family relationships? How are things at work. Eventually though, I encourage people go over to that desired future area, right? How do you desire things to be with your physical health, mental health, family relationships, work?

Yeah, what do you desire there? And then quite frankly, make a plan to go from point A to point B.

Teresa Neal

I know you're an author and I know that you have the 3-step process. And so, can you explain the 3-step process? Or at least give everybody a teaser, and then if they want to know more, they can always go to your website, but give them a teaser.

Dr. Donnie Hutchinson

Yeah. And the 3-step, that was pretty much into about the 2 steps there, right? As the current reality of, and what I share with people is it's not about judging yourself harshly or wonderful. It's just, it's reality. It is what it is. Just write it down. Okay.

And if you don't know, ask your loved ones. Your spouse will tell you, you know. Hey, do you think I should get in better shape? Uh, yeah. My kids —there are times when I'm — if I'm irritable, right? Like, how many times did I tell you to turn the TV down? I'm trying to work out of the house or whatever it might be. Right?

And once in a while they'll look over their shoulder and they're like, dad, when's the last time you went out for a run? That's sort of their way of saying, you know, come on, you got to do your part, and if you don't know, ask them —they'll tell you. And sometimes, blunt and honest about things, but truly just take into that current reality, right.

Take that inventory. I call it an inventory, just be honest with yourself. Do that inventory of current reality, then just flip that over and go into that desired future. And there are some things that require — usually before we can really get too involved in a desired future, we have to go through some exercises of self-forgiveness.

Receiving forgiveness, dealing with the guilt and regret that we — that accumulates in our lives that we've pushed down and to start dealing with that and managing it, getting it out and letting it go. And then we can truly get into that desired future. And what I mean by that is that, sometimes people be like, I'm in a mediocre marriage and I can't even picture myself desiring it to be any better.

Well, that just means we have a few things that are unresolved and we need to tackle that. Because we all want — you know, we all desire things if we're not scared to, right? And hit that desired future. And then the third part of that process is to build a project plan. You know, it's like a standard operating procedure, right? In the work that firefighters do, right? Build that plan. How do you go from point A to point B?

Teresa Neal

Little steps, not — because some — I know, you know, like every person in the world at some point in time, I'm like, okay, I'm going to lose 20 pounds. And then I go, you know, and then I'm focused on the 20, and as I've gotten older, I'm like, how about we focus on 2?

You know, do 2 and do that type of thing, or walk more, or exercise more, just those little tiny steps so that you're not overwhelmed. I don't know if everybody else is like me, but I surely get myself overwhelmed when I read a good book or — and I'm like, I'm going to do all those things.

And then, a week later, I'm like, forget it, man. That's — it's too hard.

Dr. Donnie Hutchinson

No, you're absolutely right. I call it the all or nothing culture, right? Either we're all in, or we say, “I quit,” right? And I try to flip that upside down and say, you know what? Something is everything because you said it earlier.

It's about building those habits. And even if we just go to the gym. We're not feeling good. We're going to go exercise. We get 50% of what we wanted to do accomplished. We leave. We should leave with a smile on our face, knowing that something is everything, because what we did do, we continued the habit.

And so many people don't look at it that way. They look at it as I only did half my workout. I'm falling off. It's not going to work. You know, they're looking at it the wrong way. No, you got in there when you didn't want to get in there or feel like getting in there, didn't have time, didn't have the energy, but you put yourself in there and you continue the habit — next time will be better.

So habit, that whole habit piece and routines is so important when it comes to this.

Teresa Neal

So, if you could talk to the audience about having that work-life balance and really moving forward, what would you say?

Dr. Donnie Hutchinson

It's actually the greatest way to enjoy your journey through life. You know, I call it the upstream approach. And what I mean by that is, is that we all go through things in life. And now first responders, firefighters, law enforcement. I mean, you go through more things than most.

You absolutely do. And what you experience, the terrible things on the highways and the houses, all that — when you have that solid foundation of solid self-care and you've been focusing on your family relationships. So, physically you're healthy, mentally you're top notch, socially, spiritually, family relationships.

You're balancing that out with your energy and emphasis and priorities and behaviors. And when you have that going, and then you hit those — I call it the choppy waters in life, if you will — when you experience some of those things that you go through, you're more resilient because you have shored up this life, this raft of life, if you will, as you've been journeying through this.

And because I think we've had a lot of effort and we do on the reactiveness of everything in the fire service. And we call it a therapy session, right? And therapists and that — there's emphasis on getting more therapists, which they are needed to be culturally competent. Right?

Because we all know that, you know, a first responder can scare a therapist to death practically when they share stories with them. So, they need to be culturally competent in it. But at that point, it's the reactive piece. And sometimes, well, wait a minute, my physical health has already gone downhill, my mental health and my family, divorce rates in the fire service, just strenuous relationships, strenuous relationships with teenagers or what have you, right?

That all builds up in us, and it causes more and more issues. So, what I'm saying is, let's be as proactive as we can right up front. And help people start their journeys in the fire service in a proactive behavioral health manner with great habits and routines for mind, body, spirit, family. Right?

And then as they journey down this career and they hit those choppy waters, they come out better because they haven't been weighed down by these other things.

Teresa Neal

Captain Ali, out of North Carolina, she was on the podcast earlier and she was talking about resilience. And she was — and I'm listening to what you're saying, and I'm thinking it's building that resilience in people. It's building that resilience in your fire department.

But 1 of the points that she said was that we all focus on the reason why we're having bad times or we're hitting stress and strain is because of the call, the call, the call.

And she said, you know, it's really not the call. We are resilient. Yes, as firefighters or first responders. You experience much, much more. But you are resilient. You know, we're made that way. But it's having that resiliency and those relationships within your unit that help you to work through bad things as well.

And from what you're saying, if each one of us worked at this, at making ourselves resilient, how much better the fire service would be, your own firehouse would be, because it's each person working out of the overflow that they have in their life, instead of the deficit. It's that abundance or scarcity mentality.

I can give you my energy and my power and my strength because you're giving me yours as well. And we're just kind of bringing each other along.

Dr. Donnie Hutchinson

Oh, absolutely. And that's a beautiful way to put it. Yes, it is.

Teresa Neal

Well, anything else you'd like to add?

Dr. Donnie Hutchinson

Oh, let's see. You know, I could go on and on and on, but we have a limit here.

I think the important thing is, is for listeners to remember, you know, work-life balance is, it's about aligning your daily behaviors with your priorities in life and to just pause frequently as you journey through life, as you journey through becoming a parent or a spouse and just pause and start thinking about what are those priorities and then just keep asking yourself, is my physical health important?

Is my mental health important? Is my family important? Is my job important? How do I best be proactive? And making sure all those things are taken care of, tied up nice and neatly. Right? And that it becomes habits and routines in our lives. And when that happens, it just seems like it's such a beautiful way to journey through our careers and life.

Because as we know it, by the time we blink, a decade has gone by. By the time we blink again and our kids have grown and they're out of the house. Life's short, so we need to try to enjoy every moment we have and live it to the best that we can.

Teresa Neal

Well, thank you for listening to the USFA Podcast, and thank you Dr. Hutchinson for joining us today.

And if you want to learn more about work-life balance and the work that he's done and the research that he's done, please go to his website. It's If you have a topic or speaker you would like us to interview, please email the show at

Don’t forget to subscribe to our show on Apple or YouTube Podcasts.

We share our new episodes every third Thursday of the month. You can visit us at or on social media by searching “usfire.” Until next month, stay safe.