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Stress: The Essential Guide That Will Help Your Practice

Sonia Page
Posted by Sonia Page on April 15, 2021

Stress in the workplace is a serious issue in healthcare. Learn more about how to spot the signs and what to do when your team is impacted by healthcare stress. 

Even in the best of times, stress in the workplace is a serious issue in healthcare. Whether your practice is in family medicine, dentistry, obstetrics, or something else entirely, you and your team take on substantial responsibility each day. You are tasked with helping people to become and stay healthy while also responding to frequent emergencies. That takes a mental and physical toll on all of your employees. 

The trouble is, the past year hasn’t been “the best of times.” In fact, few healthcare professionals can remember a more complicated and stressful period in their careers. The addition of pandemic-related stress on top of standard stress in the workplace has everyone concerned about the overall well-being of healthcare workers. 

The good news is that there are effective steps you can take to support your team. When you put employees’ well-being first and encourage open communication, you are better able to identify and address healthcare stress in your employees before the problem gets too big. 

TABLE OF CONTENT

Impact of Healthcare Workers’ Job Environment and Their Mental Health
Healthcare Stress Examples
How the Body Deals with Stress
How Healthcare Workers Can Defeat Stress
Self-Care for Healthcare Workers
How HR for Health Can Help

Impact of Healthcare Workers’ Job Environment and Their Mental Health

The clear connection between healthcare work and stress in the workplace has prompted a variety of studies. In one example, researchers examined the specific factors associated with physical and mental symptoms of stress. Some of the most compelling findings include the following: 

  • The combination of human contact and the need to make decisions quickly, especially when those decisions are critical to patient health, is the primary reason healthcare stress is so common. 
  • Within the profession, some positions generate greater levels of stress than others. For example, ICU nurses are more likely to feel intense work-related stress than their peers in internal medicine. 
  • Excessive workload contributes to stress in the workplace, as does understaffing a factor that contributes to workload. 
  • While each individual manages stress differently, and different factors cause stress depending on the person, common contributions to stress include ethical dilemmas, excessive demands from patients and/or their families, workplace tension, and lack of support from peers and leaders. 

It is worth noting that healthcare stress is more common among employees who do not feel heard when work-related decisions are made. In practices where leaders and team members collaborate on solutions, stress levels are lower. For example, permitting dental hygienists and vet techs to work through scheduling issues together rather than having a schedule handed to them can contribute to feelings of empowerment. 

Healthcare Stress Examples

It is possible to spot healthcare stress when you know what to look for. Two of the biggest signals that stress has become unmanageable include compassion fatigue and burnout. 

When patients experience traumatic events, their healthcare professionals are impacted, too. It’s a phenomenon known as secondary traumatization or compassion fatigue. The very act of caring for traumatized patients by providing physical or mental healthcare transfers some of the trauma to the healthcare professionals involved. 

Sometimes, a single significant event is enough to cause compassion fatigue. Other times, it is the buildup of many events over time. In either case, signs include: 

  • Depersonalization of patients.
  • Ongoing feelings of exhaustion both physical and emotional.
  • Irritability.
  • Anger typically directed inward.
  • Low job satisfaction.

Burnout is similar to compassion fatigue, but there are a few nuances that put it in a slightly different category. Rather than feeling unable to connect with patients, team members experiencing burnout feel negative toward the job. 

Signs of burnout among your employees include: 

  • Loss of enthusiasm for the work.
  • Clear lack of motivation to perform the job well.
  • Worry or anxiety about work-related issues while outside of the workplace.
  • A general sense that the job has no value.
  • Demonstrated resentment toward team members, leaders in the practice, or the practice itself.
  • Ongoing feelings of exhaustion both physical and emotional.
  • Frequent tardiness.
  • Missed deadlines.
  • Poor concentration. 
  • Unusual increase in errors.
  • Interpersonal conflict with other team members.

These signs don’t always mean your employee is experiencing stress in the workplace, but they do signal something is wrong. If you notice these behaviors, it’s time to sit down with the team member to talk through the situation. With the right intervention, your team member may be able to get back on track. 

How the Body Deals with Stress

Changes in behavior aren’t the only symptoms of stress. In many cases, stress can cause physical symptoms as well. That’s because normal stress serves an important purpose. It prompts physical changes that ensure humans are more aware of their surroundings, motivated to adapt to a new situation, and fully prepared to avoid any danger that presents itself. 

The trouble is that chronic stress keeps the body in a constant state of high alert. That’s exhausting — and it can lead to any or all of the following

  • Body aches.
  • High heart rate.
  • Chest pain.
  • Issues with falling or staying asleep.
  • Headaches.
  • Dizziness.
  • High blood pressure.
  • Tension in the muscles.
  • Jaw clenching and/or teeth grinding.
  • Digestive issues.
  • Weak immune system.
  • Sexual dysfunction.

Any one of these would be difficult to live with over time. A combination is simply unsustainable. That’s why it is so important to support your team members in relieving stress and practicing self-care.

How Healthcare Workers Can Defeat Stress

To an extent, stress is a part of any healthcare job, and a certain amount is to be expected. However, that doesn’t mean that you should give up and accept compassion fatigue and burnout as inevitable. Some ways you can support your team with managing stress in the workplace include the following: 

  • Start with education compassion fatigue and burnout can occur over time, making it harder to identify. Ensure your team knows the signs and understands when and how to ask for help.
  • Create a culture of communication encourage team members to talk with each other and you when they begin experiencing symptoms of stress in the workplace.
  • Integrate empowerment into the workplace help team members get involved with making decisions about their working conditions.
  • Ensure your team is taking the appropriate meal and rest breaks throughout the day, and promote utilization of paid time-off benefits. Vacation days are an important way for your employees to relax, recharge, and return to work refreshed.
  • Offer resources for obtaining support when stress in the workplace is overwhelming. That might be a list of referrals, an Employee Assistance Program benefit, or other options for getting help.

It’s a hard time to be in healthcare, but the work of your practice is important for helping your patients stay healthy. Your team members can do their best work and provide exceptional patient care when they aren’t struggling with the symptoms of excessive healthcare stress. 

Recommended Reading: COVID-19 Resources for Employers

Self-Care for Healthcare Workers

If you are experiencing stress in the workplace — or you simply want to reduce the likelihood that your stress levels will get out of hand — consider taking proactive steps to care for your physical and mental well-being. Examples of these include: 

  • Speaking with peers, leaders, and trusted loved ones about your stress.
  • Staying open to professional support if the stress begins to disrupt your health.
  • Spending time outside.
  • Keeping to a routine.
  • Engaging in activities that are fun and interesting and completely unrelated to your work.
  • Taking advantage of paid time off, vacation, and the practice’s leave benefits as needed.

Of course, these go hand-in-hand with the three basic building blocks of good health. Be sure you don’t neglect sleep, diet, and exercise — the very best preventative measures available. 

How HR for Health Can Help

HR for Health is your partner in reducing healthcare stress. Through specialized tools and resources, HR for Health will support your practice in opening the lines of communication and promoting full transparency. That makes it easier to check in on your employees’ well-being, and you can offer needed assistance before issues with stress in the workplace reach dangerous levels. Contact HR for Health here for more information. 

Topics: employment, workplace, general hr, Workplace-Stress, Stress

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