It’s been two years since frontline healthcare workers entered the relentless fight against COVID-19 in what’s become a seemingly never-ending battle. Their chronic stress and exhaustion — now exacerbated by the rise of new variants — is leading to higher reports of burnout than ever before. So, what can we do in the short-term to build resiliency for the long-term?
We recently sat down with Dan Hiltz, founder of leadership and executive coaching firm Leadership Squared, to get his advice on managing stress and burnout during this unprecedented time in healthcare.
A Dec. 2020 meta-analysis of 29 studies performed by the Human Resources for Health journal concluded a high prevalence of anxiety, stress and depression in healthcare workers caring for COVID-19 patients. Noting both academia and healthcare leadership were recognizing the problem, Hiltz was motivated to learn how to help healthcare providers equip their teams to deal with it.
He identifies three factors at play:
- Stress, which occurs when demands exceed capabilities. The key to successfully adapting to greater demands is a recovery period — something missing in our long-running state of emergency.
- Burnout, the resulting mental state when individuals can no longer handle the stress they’re subjected to because they don’t have that crucial recovery period. Not only are workers unable to bounce back to their original state of normalcy, their performance capabilities actually regress.
- Resilience, Hiltz says, “…is the ability to fully recover from the stress, acclimate to it and then be able to begin performing at the new higher level” required.
This is why resilience is so important in the healthcare space, particularly in the face of the ongoing global pandemic.
Recovery Tips for Healthcare Workers
Allocating time and resources toward self-care is essential.
Prioritize your own well-being.
“Put your own oxygen mask on first before helping someone else” is an oft-used metaphor, but that’s because it’s exactly how self-care works. Healthy diet, exercise, and rest are all crucial to a proper recovery period.
Step out of the batter’s box.
Hiltz also stresses implementing rituals into your daily routine. “Rituals are those patterned actions that tell your brain and your body, ‘OK, I can stand down for a minute,’” he says.
“You know, we see baseball batters do it between pitches. They step out of the batter’s box, adjust their gloves and take a deep breath before they step in for the next pitch. For healthcare workers, that might mean a 5-minute break or meeting every hour with their coworkers. It might be a simple stretching exercise. Something that muscle memory comes to recognize as down time so that they can physically and mentally take a deep breath and get a little energy back.”
Tips for Leaders to Strengthen Resilience
How can leaders help reduce stress and build resilience? Hiltz offers three practical tips. These types of interventions, he says, are shown to reduce anxiety and therefore burnout.
Make sure success is defined properly.
“I read something tongue-and-cheek the other day that the worst part of 15 days to flatten the curve is the first 18 months. So, somehow the message in this pandemic has changed from that ‘first 15 days’ to ‘eliminate all mortality.’ And that’s just not realistic in a pandemic of a new, deadly virus.” His point is that we need to set the right goals.
Provide support for recovery rituals.
Leaders should ensure scheduled, consistent breaks from pressure. “It might be coffee and donuts…it might be a food truck every day. But you need something that’s kind of scheduled to interrupt the constant pressure to provide [time for] recovery.”
More control + autonomy.
See if there’s a way to give more autonomy. Adjustments like more flexible scheduling and working in self-chosen teams give frontline workers more personal control over how they spend their time at work.
The key for leaders is to “fight with all their might” against a “we” vs. “they” culture. Make sure that employees know you’re on their side. Continue to emphasize a “One Mission, One Team” message.
“I think if leaders can build that kind of culture in a healthcare organization, they’re going to find a much more engaged employee population and therefore a much less burnt-out population,” said Hiltz.