Healing the Healers: Why health care workers need to care for themselves too

Physician burnout: How doctors can care for themselves

A friend recently forwarded this gem to me that’s stayed in my mind: “I’m so tired my tired is tired!”

That sums up what pretty much everyone I know has shared as a constant refrain: How stressed they feel at work….and in life.

We seem to go from one set of “multitasks” to another, with not much time to sit back and reflect. Deadlines always creep up. There’s always a craft or activity which needs prep work, last-minute trips to Target and yet another take-out meal.

But, at least for me, kids aside, my deadlines don’t directly involve being responsible for someone else’s life.

Health care workers on the other hand? Absolutely. Day in and day out.

THAT stress is hard to wrap my brain around. It’s not one that you often even think about.

Physician burnout and stress in health care workers

Daniel Pacheco, MD, Chief Medical Officer at Banner Behavioral Health Hospital, recently spotlighted the need for health care workers to de-stress on a regular basis in this insightful interview on KJZZ, Phoenix’s National Public Radio affiliate.

“The work never ends….you see the patients, you clear them out…well there’s another 10 waiting to come in,” Dr. Pacheco notes in the interview.

If not dealt with appropriately, it can lead to physician burnout, he warns.

Consider this startling statistic from the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention: Male physicians have a 70 percent higher suicide rate than men in other professions; female physicians die by suicide at a 400 percent higher rate than women in other professions.

Dr. Pacheco says doctors, nurses, emergency and other health care providers, through their training, feel the pressure to be the champion, healer and educator, with little wiggle room to take care of themselves.

So what should health workers do? Patients do come first, says Dr. Pacheco, but we are human as well and (mental health) issues shouldn’t be brushed aside.

He has these 5 tips for health care workers to keep in mind:

  • Take a few deep breaths several times a day and focus on the present moment
  • Take a walk or move away from your primary area of work during break time; physically change your environment
  • Each day list three things you are grateful for
  • In your to-do list, add something that is just for you. For example, go for a walk, talk to a friend, or buy a coffee or treat just for yourself
  • Smile often

And while they should put patients first, Dr. Pacheco says it’s as important to be mindful of their own needs, to continue to be able to help, and heal others.

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8 Comments

  • Thanks for putting this out. The level of stress in terms of managed diwn accountability has at times created anomosity between managent and labor. If there is no respect between the 2 I can only see things getting worse. There also appears to be a rise in medical treatment entitlement that had customers angry and staff frustrated. My Dictors have always been right about trying to lay my health responsibility on me

  • I think it’s also important to mention secondary trauma too! We hear so many stories of loss, of helplessness and of surrender. It’s easy to lose hope and burn out. That’s why I think that being a part of a good team helps replenishes your soul.

  • I wholeheartedly agree with addressing the high levels of stress imposed on nurses, physicians and other ancillary staff members. Dr Pacheco identifies some self-care strategies that staff should prioritize into their routine. Another avenue is CISD (Critical Incident Stress Debriefing) after a significant clinical event (such as a loss of patient during code). This approach fully addresses the issue of self-imposed blame and guilt often felt by staff who internalize the event and frequently attach themselves to the failure to resusitate. Healthcare workers bear witness to the worst of human suffering and become emotionally attached to the people we care for. Regret at the loss of life must be validated as well as the importance of soothing staff. Reassurance to staff that all appropriate measures were taken but unfortunately hospitals also become the last visit for patients in the last stages of illness can be of great comfort and instill confidence and quiet those often irrational self-imposed guilt statements (IE “If only I had called the doctor a few minutes earlier…). CISD evaluates the whole patient care situation and gently probes futility/prognosis as well as the things everyone did to the fullest level of training. Staff validates each other and in a shared experience addresses the shoulda/coulda/wouldas that too often scar staff, causing secondary traumatization and Compassion Fatigue. It has been a great intervention and im thankful for every time im called to help my peers.

  • At the Employee Health Department ofBanner University Medicine — Tucson, we have the rare privilege of caring for our healthcare professionals. What an amazing group! As an occupational physician, I have treated workers from hundreds of different professions and have found no professionals who give more of themselves, absorb more stress and have more dedication, than healthcare professionals. Dr. Pacheco is absolutely correct. Healthcare professional’s work never ends. Our lives are lived viewing the world through the tragedies and triumphs of our patients. Every time we leave work at shift’s end, we have been changed by the events of the day. We all need to follow Dr. Pacheco’s five tips at work, at home, and while we play. Most of all, we need to care for each other, and ourselves, every bit as much as we care for our patients. If we don’t, we are destined to fail, becoming yet another burn out statistic.

    Thanks for bringing this issue out for all of us to think, and comment about. It’s easy to get lost in a sea of never ending crisis. These five steps are critical for survival.

    • Thank you for reading and for sharing, Dr. Hitt. Please do feel free to share the blog with anyone you may think would benefit too. It’s so vital, indeed.

  • I’m a travel nurse and have seen a lot of different ideas for preventing burnout and investing in the well being of their staff. The one that had everyone in high spirits and excited about was a mandatory spa day. They scheduled everyone for a paid day of pampering. They had very little staff turnover. It also made them feel appreciated and cared for. Not always an easy thing for those used to giving. 🙂

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