By Dr. Richard Juman, TeamHealth National Director of Psychological Services
National Mental Health Month comes at an appropriate time, as we are all struggling on some level with the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. Changes in healthcare, the economy and society at large are both unprecedented and uncertain, and it’s the uncertainty that many find so disconcerting. Like the virus, anxiety about the pandemic is contagious, so we need to work to maintain our own emotional equilibrium. This is especially true for clinicians, who are both grappling with personal stressors and serving on the front lines of the pandemic. As the saying goes: Please put your oxygen mask on first, before assisting others.
As individuals, when we regard big challenges as opportunities for learning, growth and reinvention, we obtain a greater sense of control and well-being, and we become more resilient. That mindset can play a protective role in helping us get through the challenge of COVID-19. We can’t control the pandemic, but we can, and we must, control the way we react to it.
As clinicians, we need to prioritize our own emotional and physical well-being so that we can not only survive, but actually thrive during this challenging time. Ironically, our training has the potential to work against us in this regard. The “calling” of medicine creates a mindset in which sacrifice is expected, and we expect ourselves to be able to “push through” extraordinary challenges. But bringing those expectations, which may have been appropriate during our training, to an extended period of extraordinary challenge, is not a feasible strategy. This is a marathon, not a sprint. Don’t “push through” your limits by ignoring the warning signs of stress and burnout. PPE will hopefully keep us safe from the virus itself, but there is no corresponding protection from the emotional toll that the crisis may take.
At work, this means adopting strategies that help ourselves, and our colleagues, in the long run. Have regular team meetings to provide opportunities for clinicians to discuss their experiences. Celebrate your team’s successes; don’t let them get lost in the shuffle of an otherwise busy and perhaps chaotic situation. Keep your focus on what you can control. We are often powerless to save a patient, but we can always provide the best possible care. Keep an eye on your team members, and if you’re concerned about someone, let them know that you’re noticing a change and ask what you can do to help. Take sufficient, and healthy, breaks during the day, such as walking outside or doing some breathing exercises. Try to finish your work before you leave, so that when you arrive at home you’re able to give your full attention to the people, practices and behaviors that are sustaining to you.
Change your mindset from being “stuck at home” to being “safe at home.” Organize your time in the healthiest way possible and engage in behaviors that will help you come out the other side better than before. That means creating and sticking to a schedule, eating healthfully, setting aside plenty of time for sleep, exercising regularly and avoiding excessive alcohol consumption or other unhealthy coping habits.
Seize this opportunity to change some things in your life in positive ways. Start new family traditions. Focus on staying connected to your loved ones. Start projects that you’ve been putting off. Try a new hobby, or re-engage in one that you put on hold when school, professional activities and a growing family interfered. Start a bucket list. Spend as much time as possible outdoors. Find a way to engage in your unique religious or spiritual practice. Meditate, do breathing or guided visualization exercises, yoga or progressive muscle relaxation. Start a journal or organize your family photos.
The goal is to change your mindset from that of a victim who is tolerating being shut into that of someone who is going to mindfully take advantage of an unusual period of time. You have the ability to make this a time that your young children look back as a special time of warm connectedness, that your older kids look back on as the time you taught them how to manage big challenges, and that you look back on as the time when you came to appreciate and connect with your significant others in profound and lasting ways.
TeamHealth has put together a valuable set of resources, LiveWell Resources for Living, designed to help clinicians in various ways, especially those who are feeling emotionally exhausted, burned out, depressed or depleted. Please take advantage of these programs now, if you feel that one of them might help. We always want you at your best, but that’s especially true now.
Thanks to all our clinicians who are showing the world what it truly means to be caring healthcare providers.