Simple Ways Healthcare Workers can Manage Elevated Stress Levels

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According to the 2020 Medical Economics Physician Burnout Survey, ninety-one percent of doctors say they have felt burn out from practicing medicine at some point in their career. (1) The job of a healthcare professional is naturally self-sacrificing, but with the added pressures of COVID-19, healthcare workers have found themselves on the frontlines of a battlefield. In his article regarding Medscape’s physician burnout survey, author Jeff Lagasse quotes Medscape’s senior director Leslie Kane: “The incidence of burnout and depression among physicians has been a concern for years, and the pandemic only made a bad situation worse.” (2) According to that survey, one in every five physicians said their burn out emerged only in the last year. In 2019, nineteen percent of physicians reported feeling unhappy in their overall work life. That percent jumped to thirty-four percent in 2020. (2)

So what’s the solution? How do you navigate daily life in the midst of a pandemic that’s clearly not going anywhere in the near future? How do you juggle the daily stressors, while delivering quality care to your patients? When so much these days feels out of our control, there are some very practical things we can do to help relieve stress – in the workplace, among patients, and in your personal life.

Value Mental Health

With the growing rate of mental illness due to the pandemic, employers are having to make changes in the office to prioritize mental wellness for their employees. According to Adrienne Selko’s article, “The Not-So-Silent Fallout From COVID-19 – Stress,” a 2019 APA study found that around 50% of workers say they are somewhat comfortable discussing mental health openly with coworkers and supervisors. Furthermore, age plays a factor: millennials are almost twice as likely as baby boomers (62% vs. 32%) to discuss mental health issues. (3) In his article, Selko interviews Darcy Gruttardaro, director of Center for Workplace Mental Health, American Psychiatric Association Foundation. Gruttardaro explains creating a workplace culture that fosters honest conversations regarding elevated stress levels and mental health starts from the top.

One way to set a culture that prioritizes mental wellness in the workplace is to expand the current employee assistance programs, suggests Gruttardaro. He states, “The EAPs are now being strengthened to provide better service. In addition to these formal benefits, we are seeing companies offering informal assistance in the form of peer support. This way employees can connect with others who are dealing with the same issues.”

Making intentional efforts to create a culture that fosters mental wellness in the workplace is of utmost importance right now. The cost of ignoring these issues is detrimental and can lead to chronic levels of mental illness.

This is Unbelievably Important

CNN’s article, “12 Lifestyle Habits to Reduce Stress,” provides some great tips on relieving and preventing stress backed by science. Author and nutritionist, Lisa Drayer, reports on her interview with Dr. Caroline Messer, a New-York City-based endocrinologist. Regarding her patients managing their stress levels, Dr. Messer states, “It’s unbelievably important for their sense of wellbeing.” (4) What I found particularly interesting: Drayer notes that a little bit of stress is normal and even “essential for survival.” Yet, elevated levels of stress over a prolonged period of time are directly linked to various diseases and issues such as inflammation, elevated levels of hormone cortisol, elevated blood glucose levels, weight gain, increased appetite, GI issues, hypertension, and suppression of the immune system. (4) Finding ways to help your patients manage stress, help your employees manage stress, and manage your own stress is of utmost importance right now.

Set the Example

In addition to implementing workplace-wide changes, healthcare workers can create a culture of mental wellness within the workplace and among patients by simply setting the example in their personal lives. There are some very simple ways to manage stress that are proven to be very effective if incorporated into our daily lives. Drayer lists twelve in her previously referenced article: (4)

1. Meditation

I love Drayer’s instructions on meditation: “To meditate, simply bring your full attention to your breath, inhaling and exhaling through the nose. When your mind starts to wander, come back to your breath without judgment.”

2. Find a Hobby

She defines this as “anything that takes you away from your day-to-day concerns.” It could be as simple as doing a puzzle, playing an instrument, or completing a task with your children.

3. Movement

Aerobic exercise increases the body’s use of oxygen and boosts endorphins, which directly enables the brain to reduce pain and boost pleasure. Dr. Messer also points out, “Aerobic exercise allows the muscle and liver to remove glucose from the bloodstream, increases metabolism, and can improve sleep patterns.”

4. Stress-Reducing Foods

Omega-3 fatty acids such as DHA and EPA, as well as vitamin C are known to help reduce stress. Fermented foods containing probiotics also have the ability to reduce stress and cortisol levels.

5. Avoid Strict Dieting

Although many of us have a few “pandemic pounds” to lose, limiting calories to a very low amount has been shown to increase cortisol levels.

6. Cut Back on Caffeine

Stay attentive to how your body responds to certain levels of caffeine and make modifications accordingly.

7. Improve Sleep Hygiene

Seven to nine hours of sleep is key to decreasing cortisol levels. If this is difficult to achieve all at once during the night, Drayer suggests considering taking two naps no longer than thirty minutes each during the day.

8. Try Yoga

Regular stretching has shown to help reduce cortisol levels. Stretching before bed could help improve your sleep, and stretching with the family could provide a hobby that takes your focus away from the day-to-day concerns for a moment.

9. Consider Acupuncture

Dr. Messer often recommends acupuncture to her patients. She states, “Feeling calmer and sleeping better are some of the touted benefits.”

10. Enjoy Nature

The American Heart Association stands by this one. Drayer reports, “Getting outside and spending some time in nature can help relieve stress, improve your mood, and boost feelings of happiness.”

11. Listen to Music

Upbeat music helps to boost mood; while slower, quieter music helps to calm.

12. Seek Support and Connection

Regardless of whether you’re an introvert or an extrovert, Dr. Messer notes, “Humans are meant to be social, it’s through our social connections that we keep our stress levels down.”

Start Slow

Setting out to implement all twelve of these tasks into your daily habits may be a source of stress itself. I encourage you to start slow and give yourself grace. Making small, intentional efforts each day to alleviate and/or prevent stress can go a long way.

I’ll add one tip of my own that I have found extremely effective in alleviating stress during this difficult time: intentionally express gratitude. In a day and age where it’s so easy to focus on the negative, I often find myself having to choose to focus on the good. Sherri Gordon records Robert Emmons’ definition of gratitude in her article, “The Importance of Gratitude in Time of COVID.” She writes, “Robert Emmons, a psychologist and world expert on gratitude defines gratitude as the ability to recognize goodness in your life, which is due to your surroundings as well as the actions of another person or a group of people.” (5) It could be as simple as opening up your notes app on your phone and creating a list of all the good things you experience during your day. Then to take it one step further, extend the gesture to others by creating good in their lives. Hold the door, offer a compliment, or buy someone’s meal. One habit at a time, we can reduce the stress in our own lives and help others in doing so as well.

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Thank you!

Jerry L. Stone
MedicalGPS, LLC



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