Combating Stress Among Health Care Workers

Health care workers must put themselves first. Here are some strategies to help manage stress.

medical worker
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I'd argue health care workers have never been under as much strain, for as long a period of time, as they've endured in the current COVID pandemic. While more than 60% (roughly 200 million people!) of United States citizens are considered fully vaccinated, the emergence of new COVID strains and the rise of an anti-vaccine movement suggest that the health crisis, and in particular its physical, mental and emotional toll on health care workers, is not likely to subside soon.

Even before the pandemic, health care was a stressful industry. According to a Medscape survey (registration required) from 2018, for example, 42% of more than 15,000 physicians surveyed reported feeling burned out. But stress within health care has taken on an entirely new dimension during the COVID-19 pandemic due to:

• The physical and mental strain of adhering to biosecurity measures, including having to endure physical isolation on- and off-shift, wearing heavy protective gear and following strict infection control procedures

• The increased risk of disease transmission due to COVID's symptom-free incubation period and shared symptomology with colds and the flu

• An increase in professional demands, including requirements to follow separate protocols for COVID and non-COVID patients and fears around infecting (or being infected by) patients, friends and family

• The stigma related to COVID, including the fear others have of coming into contact with medical practitioners treating COVID-19 patients

So how can we reduce stress and burnout among health care professionals? Part of that answer lies with the professionals themselves, but there are also strategies health care administrators can try to ease the burden on their workers.

What Health Care Workers Can Do

Health care workers must put themselves first. Here are some strategies to help manage stress.

Recognize the symptoms. Feelings of irritability, powerlessness and anxiety are all signs of stress, as is having difficulty sleeping or concentrating. Some practitioners, particularly those who continually witness the trauma of COVID-19 firsthand, might see symptoms of acute stress disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder or secondary traumatic stress. Compassion fatigue is especially common among burned-out health care workers.

Practice self-care. This will often start with getting adequate nutrition, hydration and sleep and refraining from using alcohol or drugs as a coping mechanism. Self-care can also include being patient with yourself as you adapt to new procedures and a stressful environment and knowing when to seek help from mental health professionals.

• Adopt a mindful mindset. Following the news and doomscrolling through social media can be emotionally exhausting and upsetting. Practicing mindfulness can ease the symptoms of burnout, improve feelings of self-worth and replenish emotional resilience and empathy.

What Health Care Administrators Can Do

It starts with advocating for your staff and making sure they take the time they need to practice self-care and take care of themselves.

Create a supportive working environment. This support can include providing workers with a place to rest, healthy nutritional options, additional security for uncooperative patients and even onsite counseling.

Help your health care workers manage their stress at work. Schedule sufficient rest periods between shifts, and try to follow up higher-stress shifts with lower-stress ones. Encourage employees to take time off and fully disengage when they're not working.

Build social support structures at work. Many health care workers are trained (and naturally disposed) to care for others but struggle with making time and space for themselves. Buddying up and "huddles" can serve as a mechanism for your team members to check in on each other's well-being during shifts.

Move interactions online. Efforts to limit COVID exposure to health care workers, be it through strategies like online consultations and limiting the duration of contact with patients, can lessen health care workers' fears and anxieties.

On top of these, perhaps the most important strategy a health care leader can carry out is to build a culture of communication and celebration. One of the only offsets we have with bad days is to recognize the great ones. Especially in the current environment, health care professionals can experience an extreme amount of stress and poor patient outcomes, leaving them deflated, dejected and exhausted — physically, emotionally and spiritually. We need to remember the successes to bring them back to equilibrium. When things are good, celebrate. When things are bad, be there to support.

So How Can We Celebrate Success?

Gather people together, even for a quick moment, to share when metrics are improving. These could be quality scores going up, patient care numbers improving or receiving positive feedback from patients. These results show that people are working together and accomplishing tangible goals — a critical reminder when times are bleak.

• Create opportunities to celebrate success and connect on a personal level through regular team and shift meetings. These personal connections are your best weapon to fight hopelessness and despair. Celebrating personal milestones and publicizing when staff gets recognition or even a note from a patient can boost the entire team.

• Encourage team members to advance themselves personally and professionally. Especially in health care, and especially during a health crisis, there can be a tendency to put others' needs before your own. Encouraging team members to build themselves up can serve as an important reminder of how important they are to you, their patients and the whole team.

It's important to realize that when health care workers have a bad day, it's a really bad day. These heroes experience losses workers in other industries don't. Managers need to be hyper-focused on how teams are doing and be ready to give additional support when rough patches and rough days are happening. There's always another shift, day and patient that needs support and for us to be at our best.

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