It has been a stressful year, going on two years, for everyone, but especially challenging for doctors, nurses, and other healthcare providers. Now, we’re finding that the very people who felt the calling to care for others are often struggling to take care of themselves.
Throughout the Covid-19 pandemic, healthcare personnel have been overwhelmed and overworked. Many were asked to work longer hours and deal with more critical care than they were accustomed to; it was a rapid and significant change. And the pivot, for many, has been drug out into a long series of pirouettes.
Why Workplace Stress Is at an All-Time High
At the start of the pandemic, doctors and nurses who rushed to the frontlines felt charged by the adrenaline of the situation and the great need for their services. But as the situation has worn on, the long hours of work, demanding shifts, stressful conditions, and the toll that it all takes on their bodies, minds, and relationships has become hard to handle in the long-term.
Even before the pandemic hit, the vast majority of emergency medical staff already met the criteria for burnout and a small percentage had considered suicide at some point. Covid-19 has only magnified the problem, increasing the amount of healthcare workers experiencing anxiety, depression, and stress. Healthcare workers have reported feeling exhausted, frustrated, and traumatized by what they have lived and worked through.
Part of what makes this situation particularly tough is that healthcare workers have chosen their profession because they want to help people. They feel guilty walking away from their job especially in a time when so many people need their help. There is a great deal of pressure on them, even self-inflicted stress, to perform well on the job every day.
How to Support Healthcare Staff when They Are Needed the Most
Healthcare organizations are only as good as their staff. And the statistics are telling us that the resilience of this workforce is eroding fast. Yet this workforce is extremely valuable–for their skills, experience, and dedication to patient care—even more so now, in the midst of a widespread labor shortage. So, what can employers do to retain their staff and support them through this period of extremely high stress?
The potential to burnout shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone in healthcare and acknowledging the threat from the early stages of their careers can be a first step in prevention. This means raising awareness about the importance of self-care from the beginning and reducing the stigma around it.
Healthcare workers are more likely to burnout if they feel that their energy is wasted, work is unimportant, or their efforts are under-appreciated. So, there is a positive side to mindful recognition. One strategy to rebuild resiliency is to implement ways to acknowledge and reward staff. Demonstrating that their efforts and their contributions are meaningful can help alleviate feelings of fatigue.
Time to Recharge
To prevent burnout on the macro level, healthcare advocates are currently pushing for universal paid sick days especially for practitioners who are part-time or work on contract. It’s important, they say, to give personnel the time they need to care for themselves when their physical or mental health is less then optimal.
“If you give nurses, the adequate time they need to recover–whether it’s physically or mentally—they can come back ready to work and healthy,” explains Sara Fung, RN. “While if they just stick it out and work while they’re sick, they may just end up exacerbating whatever issue they have.”
On the micro level, supporting staff can be as simple as scheduling breaks during shifts. This not only allows them time to take a breather, but it actually requires them regularly put patient care on pause. Often busy professionals don’t take advantage of break time, so scheduling breaks out can help enforce time for self-care and encourage staff to momentarily separate themselves from work stress.
Even in times of medical emergencies, it’s crucial that everyone feels that they have time to take care of themselves, their patients, and their families. Striking this perfect work-life balance must be a priority every day; it’s a goal that requires ongoing effort to achieve. Now, more than ever, healthcare workers have to make adjustments in order to maintain a healthy lifestyle.
Employers should make resources available to their staff to help support these types of goals. Counseling and workshops focusing on finding the right balance in their lives can be a good start and staff should be encouraged to take advantages of the resources provided.
Healthcare staff can’t provide quality patient care if they aren’t feeling well. That’s why it’s fundamental that they be encouraged to get enough sleep, eat well-balanced meals, and exercise regularly. Let staffers know what types of nutritional, therapeutic or counseling services offered by their institution and advocate taking advantage of these resources.
Morale and mental wellness can aided by peer programs, mentoring, and workplace outings. Organizations should encourage employees to collaborate across departments when possible, and coordinate group initiatives facilitating communication beyond their team. One example is luncheons where employees from different departments can work together to develop solutions to everyday challenges. Within a department, supporting resilience can start with meetings to debrief following high-stress cases and offering opportunities for ongoing learning.
Those who are used to caring for others find it particularly difficult to ask for help. They put an incredible amount of pressure on themselves to ‘do it all.’ To address this, management should work to create an environment where employees feel comfortable asking for help. It’s also important to let them know what services are available when or if they think they have a problem with anxiety, depression, substance abuse or addiction.
Related article: Cloud Tools to Increase Efficiency in Your Medical Practice.
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