Taking Care of the Care Takers

As America and indeed the world closes its doors and shutters the windows in response to the coronavirus, it is perhaps time to raise awareness to issues beyond the physical. Healthcare professionals worldwide are on the front lines of insuring people and themselves stay as physically safe as possible, however, those same healthcare professionals are notorious for putting themselves last especially when it comes to the unseen; our mental and emotional well-being.

Human beings are conditioned to and thrive on ‘certainty.’ Feelings of unrest or questions of ‘what next?’ tend to make us experience anxiety and even dread. When humans do not feel safe, when we are threatened, we experience stress. Stress doesn’t limit itself to the physical. There is also mental, emotional and spiritual stress. Stress is a normal, even beneficial primitive protective response to outside stimuli. Most people believe stress should be viewed in an entirely negative manner resulting in all kinds of negative reactions like insomnia, weight gain, heart disease and anxiety. Stress is something that needs to be taken quite seriously and generally stress reduction is a good thing. There are a few positive responses to stress, namely the increased mental acuity that can accompany a stress reaction. Stress increases the cortisol and adrenaline levels in the body aiding us in the ‘fight, flight or freeze’ response. It is a known phenomenon that many people function at a higher level when experiencing stress. Pressure filled situations can bring out the best in us and this in turn can increase confidence levels. Once humans have learned they can manage or even excel in periods of stress or uncertainty, our belief in our ability to cope with these types of situations increases.

The situation healthcare professionals and the world find itself in today has taken stress to new levels. Mental and emotional health can take a severe beating at times like this if we don’t pay attention. Anxiety produced by the inability to control even our immediate environment can overwhelm people. Focusing on what one has the ability to control to ‘Trust the Wait’ as Mandy Hale describes it in her book of the same name, can help us manage our response to this barrage of conflicting information and uncertainty we find ourselves in.

  • Discern what you CAN control: Practice social distancing, proper hand washing and use of PPE’s
  • Structure makes us feel secure: Plan your day with exercise time, checking on loved ones, meditation, making to-do lists of short-range tasks, concentrate efforts on one thing at a time
  • Go Outside: fresh air, sunshine, wind in your hair, walk around your house or building
  • Smell the environment and look for the beauty
  • Stay in the Present. Often our fear or worry response is based on a past memory. When we begin to worry about future events, things that haven’t happened yet and may never happen, a great deal of unnecessary energy can be spent on potential events. Let it go and concentrate in the present moment. We don’t get them back.
  • Stay Engaged and Involved: We find ourselves in an extraordinary technically advanced age. Literally every kind of emotional, mental, educational, spiritual and physical support is available on-line. Church services, support groups, exercise classes and apps like Zoom, Facetime, Instagram, etc. offer us the ability to stay connected. It is vital that people do not isolate themselves. If you are aware of people without this resource, reach out to them.

Research has shown that up to 40% of Healthcare professionals suffer from ‘compassion fatigue’ or burnout under the most normal of circumstances. We are all agreed that we are a long way from normal and even that will be redefined in the coming months and years. Healthcare Executives, Supervisors, Nurse managers etc. need to be watching for signs of this mental and emotional fatigue. Signs include such things as:

  • Comments about feelings of being worn-out or lack of energy
  • Trouble Sleeping
  • Difficulty managing home/work life
  • Unusual Caffeine intake
  • Irritability with co-workers
  • Feeling like they are ‘carrying the weight of the world’

Specifically, what Hospitals and other Healthcare providers do to support their front-line team can include the following:

  • Encourage Decompression time: enforce breaks, lunch time, end of shift
  • Provide “Quiet Space: The Chapel, a break room with low-lights, soft music, herbal teas
  • Provide on-site counseling or other Employee Assistance Programs (EAP). Encourage chaplain or counselors to make the rounds each shift.
  • Limiting Hours, Shifts, or Days in a row
  • Insistence on Days Off
  • Reassurance that they are not alone

No one knows what the future of this pandemic holds for the world. It is important that we don’t let the ‘what if’s’ set in, letting the worst-case scenarios take a hold of your brain. This is a self-destructive and self-perpetuating mindset that Cognitive Therapists call ‘catastrophizing:’ taking every morsel of bad news as evidence that things are going to be globally, absolutely and eternally terrible. C.S. Lewis gave a speech in 1939 in England at the beginning of WWII where he offered the insight that war doesn’t make human life more fragile, just that we are more aware of its fragility. This might not make any of us feel better, but it at least offers us the chance to step back and look at the big picture. The helplessness and uncertainty that people feel unable to cope with is in fact, inaccurate. We face uncertainty every day. It’s called Life. Once this pandemic is over, we will debrief, regroup, reorganize, critique, criticize, learn, modify and reform healthcare responses to COVID-19. A new normal will begin. Human beings have proven throughout time to be remarkably resilient. Above all, stay safe, smart, healthy, engaged and don’t be afraid to ask for help.

NHS Solutions specializes in providing interim healthcare leadership to hospitals across the US. In these unprecedented times, we are experiencing unprecedented demand for leaders in the specialty areas of ICU and laboratory. NHS Solutions is poised to fill these needs as evidenced by recent placements of an Interim Director of Lab & Pathology with a 1 week on boarding, an Interim Lab Manager and an Interim ICU Manager. Contact us to discuss your hospital’s interim leadership needs or to discuss a career step into interim leadership. 

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