How Healthcare Professionals Can Keep on Top of Stress at Work

September 24, 2018
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The workplace can be a stressful environment whichever industry you work in. If your workload is too demanding, it can put pressure on every aspect of your job. Conversely, work which doesn’t engage you or give you the opportunity to use your skills to the utmost can be demoralising and sap your energy. Some people are frustrated by a lack of opportunity, or a lack of control over the workplace decisions that affect them. Others feel undervalued, or that they don’t know what’s expected of them. Most of us have had trouble with a colleague or a boss at some point during our careers.

When you work in the healthcare industry, all these common stress factors are aggravated by the additional burden of caring for people who are themselves in pain or under stress. Many if not most healthcare professionals enter the industry because they care about people and want to help them. That same quality can make it especially taxing to spend so much time with patients who are suffering and anxious about their health. At the same time, healthcare professionals are more likely than workers in most industries to be under-resourced and under-supported.

One of the worst aspects of a stressful worklife is that it can kick off a vicious cycle. Carrying stress home can stop you from eating properly and sleeping properly. Even the most loving relationships take effort, and if your work is leaving you tired and irritable that effort becomes harder to sustain. When you’re not eating and sleeping well, and when you feel you’re letting your family down, you return to work less able to perform, which makes it even harder to manage your workload or your colleagues or whichever factors originally caused your stress. And so the cycle deepens.

In the long run, workplace stress can have medical consequences. Studies have found that prolonged exposure to high levels of the stress hormone cortisol can contribute to weight gain, a weakened immune system and even heart disease. A stressful work environment can also increase the risk of injury. Stressed or tired healthcare professionals are more likely to cut corners or make mistakes. If that happens while you’re handling a needle or lifting a patient, you can easily injure yourself. Doctors working under stress can make mistakes which affect the life of a patient, and that can become a significant stress factor in its own right.

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For all these reasons it’s especially important for healthcare professionals to know how to manage their stress. Here are a few key approaches.

Understand your triggers

When your work environment becomes stressful, one of the hardest things can be pinpointing the sources of stress. Your whole experience of work is coloured by your negative feelings, which means that to some extent every aspect of your job becomes more challenging. The more precisely you can identify the sources of your workplace stress, the more easily you can manage it. For instance, it’s only so useful to recognise that you don’t get on with your boss. If you can identify a specific cause of friction, however, for example that your boss underestimates your ability to work without supervision, then you can raise the issue in a way that might improve the situation. Just understanding the sources of your stress can go some way to taking the pressure off: you’re less likely to feel that your situation is hopeless.

The way to begin understanding what triggers your workplace stress is to keep a journal. You don’t have to write down everything that happens. Just make a note of situations that made you feel anxious or stressed. Note where you were, who was there, and how you reacted. Give the situation a “Stress Score” out of ten: was it only a little stressful, or was it the most stressful situation of your career so far? When you’ve been keeping your journal for a while—probably no more than a month—a picture of your stress will start to emerge. Which situations crop up again and again? Which people? Which topics of conversation? Is there a particular time of day when you get more stressed?

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When you understand what is triggering your stress, you can address your triggers. Even if you can’t do anything about your workload or your troublesome boss, you might be able improve your workplace habits and de-stress that way.

Create better habits

The second step to managing workplace stress is to build habits which help you manage both your stress factors and your experience of stress.

Many healthcare workers forget to take care of themselves, especially under pressure. It’s important to remember that if you push yourself too hard for your patients, you’re doing them a disservice as well as yourself. Eat regular healthy meals and snacks. Many healthcare workers over-rely on caffeine to keep them energised, but maintaining a steady blood-sugar level is more effective, healthier, and less conducive to stress. If you’re not sleeping enough, take steps to improve your sleeping conditions. Is your room dark? Is it noiseless?

Nothing beats stress like exercise. It can be hard for healthcare professionals to find the time to exercise, and when you work irregular hours it can be especially hard to form an exercise habit. The trick is to start small. A twenty-minute jog, or even a walk, just two or three times a week, will significantly reduce your stress levels.

Meditation is an increasingly popular stress-buster, and a very effective one. For busy or cash-strapped workers, a great way to approach meditation is through an app. There are several free or low-cost apps which will introduce you to meditative practice and guide you through short, daily meditation sessions. Even small amounts of meditation have been shown to reduce stress and improve cognitive function.

Claiming compensation for workplace stress

Whether you can manage it or not, there are limits to the amount of stress your work should expose you to. If you’ve suffered prolonged workplace stress, you may be entitled to compensation. Your first step is to speak to a legal expert. They’ll be able to talk you through your options, and help you make your claim if you decide to proceed.