By Dr. Richard Juman, TeamHealth National Director of Psychological Services
National Stress Awareness Month in April may mark the most difficult for the United States in terms of the impact of COVID-19. The pandemic has instantly raised the stress levels in our lives. Think about the things that until very recently kept you up at night − the stressors of “normal life” in the professional, financial, community and familial realms − and you will likely find them dwarfed by the stressors of the pandemic and our “new normal.” You now may be worried about whether you and your loved ones, particularly your older relatives, will simply survive the coronavirus pandemic, or you may be preoccupied by the virus’s impact on the U.S. economy and our societal structure. It’s impossible to predict what the world will look like post-pandemic, and that uncertainty may be the most stressful aspect of the situation for many.
For most of us, the need to remain aware of stress has been replaced by an urgent need to manage a level of stress that is obvious and may be overwhelming. Stress is a natural part of the human condition, and while it has positive elements that can spur us to action, chronic stress that is not addressed can have a significantly negative impact on one’s quality of life and physical health. For better or worse, right now we have no difficulty identifying the many sources of stress in our lives. So the question becomes: “How can we respond to the obvious increase in our stress levels in a way that is positive and protective?”
Remember the parable of the woodcutter who is straining to cut down a tree. An observer notices that the woodcutter, despite his grueling efforts, is not making much progress, so he encourages the woodcutter to stop for a while to rest and to sharpen his axe. The woodcutter, offended by the suggestion, replies that he is too busy to stop and he continues his frustrating efforts to cut down the tree with a dull axe. He ignores the advice from Abraham Lincoln: “Give me six hours to chop down a tree … I will spend the first four sharpening the axe.”
For a variety of reasons, healthcare providers are more at risk for the negative impacts of stress than the general population. We are trained to be in control, to work long hours, to put the needs of our patients ahead of our own and to “push through” when we feel overwhelmed or exhausted. That strategy, problematic in any scenario, is significantly more dangerous at this time. We owe it to our patients and loved ones to be at our “sharpest,” despite the pressures to push ourselves.
So, how are you feeling? Does any of this ring true for you? Do you find yourself overreacting to small things, suffering from headaches or other stress-related physical symptoms and generally feeling that the demands placed on you are surpassing your ability to manage? Are you more irritable than usual? Has your use of alcohol, nicotine or other drugs increased? Is your sleep suffering or do you find yourself making poor choices with respect to your diet? All of these are likely symptoms of stress or “burnout.”
Please schedule time for exercise, meditation, adequate sleep, warm baths, outdoor activities and safe hobbies that interrupt the stress cycle. Make sure that you stay as connected as possible to family and friends, as these social supports are crucial to maintaining your equilibrium. If you find yourself with more free time than you’re accustomed to, use it to learn a new skill as opposed to mindlessly killing time in front of the TV. Try to build adequate transition time into your schedule, so you’re not constantly racing from one stressful activity to the next, and be deliberate in terms of how you spend your break times. Fifteen minutes spent walking outside or lightly stretching in a quiet room has a much more positive effect than 15 minutes spent wolfing down a bag of chips and bad coffee from the vending machine.
Because of the prevalence of stress in the healthcare industry, TeamHealth is committed to helping clinicians achieve wellness and work-life balance. We are a clinical organization whose success, and the welfare of our patients, depends on our clinicians being at the top of their game. We encourage you to speak to your supervisor about any challenges you’re facing that can be addressed directly, such as assignments or scheduling.
Pushing through stress isn’t a healthy long-term strategy. Better to take decisive action now.
As a part of TeamHealth’s commitment to physical and mental well-being, we invest in programs to aid in clinician wellness. In 2020, we enhanced available wellness resources through LiveWell Resources for Living to help colleagues combat personal challenges such as burnout, depression, anxiety, financial and legal issues and more. For more information on this program, visit our LiveWell WorkLife Resources of Living webpage, or contact Megan Norman.