How to Effectively Identify and Manage Healthcare Related Workplace Stress

Doctor angry at his assistant due to medical error

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Thinking Thursdays TIPs

Providing Healthcare is Challenging Enough Without Workplace Stress

Workplace Stress Defined

Most of us love a good challenge – that victorious high you feel after conquering a seemingly impossible task through the implementation of a plan and a little elbow grease. It empowers us to keep going and even makes us stronger to face future challenges. However, there’s nothing more defeating than the slow and steady weight of a daily stressor that seems to bury our motivation, confidence, and eventually overall zeal for life. It’s easy to confuse the two despite their fundamental differences and opposing impacts they have on our lives. We draw energy from tackling a challenge head on. On the contrary, a stressor is something that causes energy depletion and can take a devastating toll on our health. Stressors often cause us to feel overwhelmed and helpless in combating its negative effects. However, we have more control than we think in identifying daily stressors and eliminating them.

The American Association for Physician Leadership published an article titled, “Effective Ways to Handle Medical Practice Workplace Stress,” in which author Laura Sachs Hills, MA takes her readers through an extensive explanation of workplace stress. Hill defines workplace stress as, “[T]he harmful physical and emotional responses that occur when the requirements of the job do not match the capabilities, resources, or needs of the worker.” (1) Her article is incredibly informational and would be well worth a thorough read. I’ll hit some of the major points in today’s Thinking Thursday TIPs.

Taking Control

Hills writes, “[T]he simple realization that we’re in control of our lives and our stress is the foundation of workplace stress management. Managing stress, then, is all about taking charge – taking control of our thoughts, our emotions, our schedule, our environment, and the way we deal with the inevitable problems that come our way.” (1) No doubt about it, if you’re alive and walking the earth in 2021, there’s a great deal out there that you cannot control. This reality makes Hills writing all the more refreshing – despite many feeling like victims to their daily stressors, there’s victory to be had in recognizing them and taking control of how we respond to them!

Identify Your Hot Buttons

While workplace stress is the norm for most people these days, everyone has their own particular triggers, or “hot buttons” as Hills calls them. She notes that universal stressors do exist, but differences in characteristics and personality play a huge role in recognizing unique, individual stressors. It’s important to be able to objectively look at your own habits, tendencies, and excuses to determine which stressors are circumstantial and which ones could potentially be self-induced due to procrastination, fear, or insecurity for example. Hills suggests keeping a journal to help identify stressors and properly analyze your responses and coping mechanisms.

Unhealthy Ways to Cope

In the high demand of our daily tasks, it’s easy to simply bury stress and remain unaware of its presence and impact on your life. Hill provides a thorough list of unhealthy ways to cope with stress.

If you find yourself experiencing these on a regular basis, you might have some unidentified stressors in your life.

  • Apathy
  • Feeling anxious, irritable, or depressed
  • Smoking
  • Using alcohol or drugs to relax
  • Over- or under eating
  • Social withdrawal
  • Sleeping too much
  • Procrastinating
  • Taking out your stress on others
  • Zoning out in front of the TV
  • Ignoring your feelings
  • Filling every minute of the day to avoid facing problems

Setting the Stage

The natural consequence of living with unidentified stress or attempting to manage it with unhealthy coping mechanisms is extremely costly. Hill writes, “When people feel overwhelmed by stress, they find their work less rewarding. They lose confidence and become irritable, argumentative, withdrawn, careless, less productive, and less effective. They also are more likely to get sick and make mistakes. In short, workplace stress sets the stage for illness, injury, job dissatisfaction, and/or job failure.” (1) Hill includes some recent statistics regarding workplace stress that I think are worth drawing your attention to.

  • Twenty-five percent of working adults view their jobs as the top stressor in their lives.
  • Problems at work are more strongly associated with health complaints than are any other life stressor, more so even than financial or family problems.
  • Workplace stress costs U.S. employers an estimated $200 billion per year in absenteeism, lower productivity, staff turnover, workers’ compensation, medical insurance, and other stress-related expenses.

I don’t have to connect the dots for you of workplace stress leading to physician burnout. It’s another devastating consequence of living with unidentified and improperly managed stress. According to Medscape’s survey, “Nearly 80% of physicians said they felt burned out prior to the pandemic, but one in five said their burnout emerged only last year.” (2) The percentage of burnout was astronomical even before the debut of COVID-19, however the pandemic definitely didn’t help. Healthcare workers are now potentially dealing with the added stress of homeschooling, finding childcare, mitigating the spread of the virus, and maintaining their own personal health and safety.

Change is Key

Hill provides not just one solution to help manage stress, but twenty-five very practical and useful tips to help manage stress. She writes, “There are many ways to manage and cope with stress but they all require change. You can either change the situation or change your reaction. If you wish to change the situation, you can work to avoid the stressor or alter the situation so it is not as stressful. And if you choose to change your reaction to the stressor, you can either adapt to it or accept it.” (1) For the sake of time, I will simply list her tips. However, I encourage you to read through them in her article.

  • Create a peaceful space.
  • Take a break.
  • Learn to say “no.”
  • Avoid hot-button topics.
  • Get enough sleep.
  • Drink alcohol in moderation and avoid nicotine.
  • Pare down your to-do list.
  • Block out the distractions.
  • Limit interruptions.
  • Create a balanced schedule.
  • Break projects into small steps.
  • Learn to transition from work to home life.
  • Meet challenges with humor.
  • Resist perfectionism.
  • Flip your negative thinking.
  • Get moving.
  • Eat well.
  • Learn relaxation skills.
  • Improve your communication and problem-solving skills.
  • Get there early.
  • Break bad habits.
  • Talk it out.
  • Cultivate work friendships.
  • Reframe problems.
  • Take responsibility.

Be Empowered

It’s true that problems are inevitable and there is so much we can’t control in today’s current climate. However, there’s freedom and relief in recognizing we are not victims to our circumstances. There are choices we can make to help eliminate the stressors in our life, even if it’s as simple as choosing to accept some of them. True acceptance means letting go and shifting perspective. If we catch stressors early and develop healthy habits in response to stress, it won’t fester and manifest itself in ways that could be potentially harmful to our health or work environment. Be empowered to identify stressors, make a choice, create a plan, and watch change happen.

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Thank you!

Jerry L. Stone
MedicalGPS, LLC



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