It has never been quite as clear as it is in the present just how important healthcare workers are to a functioning society. Without them healthcare systems collapse, large or widespread health issues become unmanageable and the sick and injured remain sick and injured.
What has also gained attention as a serious public concern is the adverse impact challenging working conditions can have on the mental health of these healthcare workers.
Day after day they deal with a huge array of health and safety hazards ranging from exposure to infectious disease, ergonomic issues resulting from long working hours and exposure to consistent, high-stress environments resulting in declining mental health for our frontline and healthcare providers.
It’s little wonder leading healthcare bodies continue to call for appropriate interventions to be put in place to protect the health and well-being of the healthcare workforce not just during significant public health crises like we’ve just endured, but on a day-to-day basis. Empowering healthcare workers and protecting their mental health and well-being is important not just for those already in the industry, but for those considering it as a career path.
Continuing to encourage people to enter the industry and choose to become doctors, nurses or other healthcare-related professionals by studying at either on-site universities or those based online like FNP online programs in Texas is vital to society as a whole, and providing the appropriate assistance to manage their mental health is of benefit to all.
Of the many mental health issues one can face, stress and burnout are two significant outcomes of prolonged, unchecked and unsupported mental health in healthcare workers. We examine both below.
Stress Among Healthcare Workers
Many factors that can contribute to elevated stress and every individual’s tolerance to them differs, however in general healthcare workers are exposed to a greater level of stressors than your ‘regular’ worker. This can include managing emotional situations with patients and families daily, exposure to severe illness and death and severe pressure to perform with serious repercussions for under-performance or making an error.
These last several years have certainly exacerbated many of these stressors and many healthcare workers faced increased workloads, long hours due to short-staffing and anxiety while managing an unpredictable disease.
The impact of stress on a healthcare worker can affect their professionalism, the quality of care they provide, efficiency in delivery of care and their overall quality of life both during work and in their home life.
For these reasons alone, it is important there is early identification of healthcare workers who are suffering from stress to ensure their mental health is protected and patients in their care can continue to receive the medical support they need.
Burnout Among Healthcare Workers
Working in a highly stressful environment for significant periods of time also puts one at risk of burnout. Burnout can be characterized by feelings of exhaustion, increased mental distance from one’s job, negative connotations towards one’s job and/or reduced efficiency while working.
According to a Mayo Clinic Proceedings study more than 62% of physicians reported at least one manifestation of burnout in 2021, roughly 21 months into the recent worldwide health crisis. This was a significant jump from 2020 when 38% reported a manifestation of burnout.
Demanding physical work, long and sometimes unpredictable hours and even a lack of control over one’s environment can all contribute to burnout, the result of which can be dissatisfaction with work-life integration, sub-par care to patients, a doubled chance of medical error that contributes to a 17% increased odds of being named in a malpractice suit and even an increase in motor vehicle accidents.
As with healthcare workers who are dealing with stress, those suffering from burnout require early intervention to ensure the consequences do not escalate and their well-being is taken care of.
What Can Be Done to Support Healthcare Workers?
Dealing with stress and burnout can be a long and winding road. Providing support for healthcare workers is not a one glove fits all scenario, however there are a few key ways in which those in the healthcare industry can make a difference; enabling healthcare workers to practice self-care, support from a managerial perspective and support from a workplace perspective.
Healthcare professionals are a caring bunch which is generally what leads them into this line of work. Patients are put first and self-care is not necessarily prioritized. Self-care can mean something different to everyone and may look like taking frequent breaks, checking in and being aware of one’s stress levels, healthy habits like a daily walk or a healthy meal, getting a decent sleep in, journaling, engaging with friends or family, meditating, exercising or even simply allocating time for activities or hobbies you enjoy.
Education around the importance of self-care and the normalization of the need for it can be an effective way to mitigate stress and burnout. Enabling healthcare workers to take time for themselves with these personal short-term strategies to deal with the demands of the day can be effective in combating stress and burnout.
For many healthcare workers or indeed the population in general there is a fear of judgment from others when it comes to attending to your own needs. Putting yourself first is not often a priority so fostering a workplace culture that recognizes, supports and promotes mental well-being is vital to change this belief system and offers another effective way for healthcare workers to manage stress and burnout.
Key outcomes from this would be creating an environment in which a healthcare worker can openly talk to their manager about their well-being with no fear of repercussions, arranging regular check-ins with employees and normalizing asking for help when needed.
Prioritizing the Mental Health and Well-Being of Healthcare Workers: An Urgent Global Public Health Priority published in Frontiers in Public Health rightly calls out for healthcare workers to have access to psychological first aid during times of crisis or during challenging working conditions such as access to mental health support programs, self-care of mindfulness courses or managers or executives whose primary remit is the well-being of employees.
While short-term boosters such as catered lunches or recognition awards provide temporary acknowledgment, it can be a somewhat superficial solution and there needs to be both protective and preventive measures put in place on a more permanent basis to shift the dial and better prepare our healthcare workers to deal with the mental health challenges that come from this line of work.