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8 stress management techniques for overburdened healthcare workers

A national survey found that more than 60% of frontline healthcare workers – defined as those who have direct contact with patients and their bodily fluids – said pandemic-related worry and stress have affected their mental health.

Some respondents to the Kaiser Family Foundation (KFF)/Washington Post survey said they have experienced sleep troubles, headaches and stomach issues, while others said they have increased their use of alcohol or drugs.

Workplace culture can contribute to job-related stress, as can relationship issues with managers and colleagues. While crushing workloads and long hours are obvious stressors, subtler conditions like unclear expectations and ineffective processes also affect employees.

Protecting your team from stress and burnout is critical to maintaining a healthy workforce and improving patient outcomes.

Follow these eight stress management techniques for healthcare workers: 

1. Check in with yourself and your team

When the pressure's on, we feel it in our bodies. Whether it's a stiff neck, a headache or a churning stomach, encourage your team to recognize their personal signs of stress and know when they need a break.

The term "self-care" has gained popularity during the past year, and with good reason. Taking care of their physical and mental health helps those in demanding roles manage stress and stay focused. That's good for both workforce retention and patient outcomes.

2. Normalize feelings

Feeling stressed or anxious isn't a sign of weakness – it's a sign you're doing something that matters and that you care about the outcome. Make it OK for team members to talk about the stress they're feeling. Help them plan ways to reduce stress and make it clear you won't judge them.

One strategy to try is creating a "buddy system." Encourage workers to pair off or form small groups to check in with each other and talk through feelings with others who understand the pressures they face. Also, keep an open-door policy so team members know they can share concerns with leadership.

3. Breathe mindfully

Even a minute of intentional paced breathing can sharpen your attention and regulate your nervous system. In contrast, faster breathing increases amygdala activity, encouraging the body to feel afraid, angry or anxious.

The Institute for Healthcare Improvement recommends healthcare workers take a few deep breaths before entering a patient's room or having an important care conversation. Busy team members can also include mindful breath breaks during hand washing and other prep activities.

4. Applaud efforts and celebrate wins

Recognizing both your own efforts and the efforts of your team helps keep you connected to your greater purpose. Many healthcare workers have made personal and professional sacrifices during COVID-19 and recognizing these efforts can keep your team strong.

Looking for ways to reward the hard work of team members or to recognize a job well done? Try one or more of the following strategies: 

  • Give time off
  • Award gifts or bonuses
  • Say "thank you" during staff meetings
  • Provide a catered lunch
  • Recognize on a sign or bulletin board

5. Stay flexible

Help newer team members find support by pairing them with more experienced colleagues. Be willing to shift schedules to accommodate your own needs or those of your colleagues when difficulties arise. Switching shifts can also help when you need a break to care for yourself or a family member.

Help team members balance the demands of work and family life by offering and taking advantage of scheduling options like job sharing and float pools. Encourage colleagues to be flexible in covering for each other whenever possible to help foster positive working relationships. Knowing that a team member has your back helps make heavy patient loads and long hours more manageable.

6. Pause when possible

Patient care situations can evolve quickly, and healthcare workers must pivot quickly too. Protocols that build in even a small buffer allow workers to pause, reset and consider all options when making care decisions.

Taking a deliberate pause during the decision-making process can help reduce in-the-moment stress and provide perspective. Encourage team members to focus on the patient in front of them and check any biases they may be bringing to the encounter. Such pauses can help prevent reactive decisions in stressful situations.

7. Reduce decision fatigue

With multiple patients and long hours, healthcare workers must make many decisions throughout their shifts. This can lead to decision fatigue, in which the overall volume of decisions that must be made reduces a person's capacity for good judgment. When a team member experiences decision fatigue, it may affect the quality of care they provide to patients.

Workers experiencing decision fatigue might miss symptoms, order unnecessary tests or prescribe medications that aren't needed. Automating care decisions whenever possible with checklists and reminders can help reduce decision fatigue and risk. Research shows that checklists help increase patient safety in clinical settings.

8. Support getting help

One in five healthcare workers in the KFF/Washington Post survey said they thought they might need mental health services – but didn't get them. Whether it's concern about stigma or feeling there's no time for care, it's important to encourage team members to care for their bodies and minds.

Encourage team members to look out for one another and to share their experiences. Support access to mental healthcare services with flexible scheduling and clear messaging that supports good mental health as a priority for all team members.

Finding small ways to honor team members' commitment and dedication in caring for patients each day helps reinforce a sense of camaraderie. Building a strong team identity has measurable impacts in helping healthcare workers manage stress. In fact, a recent Yale University study found that being part of a team helps buffer healthcare workers against stress and burnout during tough times.

Employing stress management techniques like these can help keep your team members – and your team as a whole – stay grounded and healthy, especially during challenging times. That's good for workforce morale and for patient outcomes too.

Sources: pandemic responses-to-errors-57558