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Keeping Health Care Workers Healthy

Posted by David Couper on August 19, 2015 9:30 AM

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“Some very talented and socially adept physicians learn to balance compassion with emotional detachment,” writes Dr. Sanaz Majd, “...But for the rest, it’s simply about learning to cope, a survival of the fittest.”

As a health care professional, you work long hours, and encounter kind people who are beyond your ability to help. Since you entered this field to help others, this creates internal conflict and tension. You can’t ignore it; you must manage it.

You also wrestle with conflicting emotions, stressful conditions, bureaucratic roadblocks, and the very real limits of being human. In other words, you are living in a laboratory-like setup that seems designed to cause you stress and fatigue.

Now I’m going to remind you what you already know, but may be ignoring. You have two choices:

1. Ignore the stress, and slowly compromise your ability to be effective.

2. Counter-balance the stress, and preserve your ability to do great work.

#1 is the domain of career burnout. It is what professionals do when they can’t muster the energy to use their own expertise for their own good. People in this category often have difficulty shifting their habits simply because it is the healthy thing to do, so I advise them to think of the people they love and ask, “How will they feel when you aren’t around anymore?”

But let’s be more optimistic, and assume that you want to pursue #2 as a personal strategy.

First, acknowledge that you have human emotions. No matter how professional you may be, certain patients and circumstances will impact you. Don’t bury these feelings. Find someone you trust and deal with them. Start keeping a journal and take time for private reflection. Or you could even emulate Dr. Majd and write publicly about the delicate balancing act you practice.

No matter what approach you take, it’s vital that you do something proactive to deal with your emotions and perceptions.

Sometimes health care professionals have to think outside the box to triumph over such challenges. The Center for Professionalism and Peer Support (CPPS) at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston realized that relatively few physicians and other clinicians access support from non-physicians. So CPPS trained over 60 physicians and nurses as peer supporters, all in an effort to help physicians “feel supported, to talk openly about his or her feelings, and to move on to next steps.”

Second, tackle physical stress head-on. Meditate, practice deep breathing, and/or exercise. You can’t simply think yourself to good health. As you know, over time your body will weaken under the weight of steady stress unless you deliberately strengthen and tone it.

Also carve out space for whatever activities - and people - recharge your batteries. It’s tempting to think you don’t have time for this, but if you keep passing up such opportunities... sooner or later your body will give you no other choice.

We’d like to invite those working in healthcare to take some time to recharge with us this Thursday, August 20th, from 12-1 PM PST, for a free webinar with Dr. Carla Rotering on dealing with stress and overwhelm. Register here.

Image: JD Hancock/Flickr

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