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Mental Health Wellness for Healthcare Workers

Nurses and doctors experience unexpected challenges daily — challenges that would quickly overwhelm many other individuals. Yet despite the mental and physical toll these challenges take, nurses and doctors are expected to persevere. In fact, many healthcare professionals take pride in their ability to endure long days and high-stress situations. But this attitude often keeps these individuals from engaging in the self-care they need to protect their health. As the saying goes, you can’t pour from an empty cup and, sadly, many healthcare professionals try to do just that.

The difference between a good healthcare professional and a great one is rarely skill. It comes down to their ability to think critically, act instinctively, and display empathy shift after shift. A healthcare worker’s mental health can have a tremendous effect on all three of these attributes, directly impeding their ability to provide high-quality care.

Regardless of the importance of caring for doctors’ and nurses’ mental and emotional health, stigma surrounding mental health persists. To avoid experiencing this stigma and further exacerbating a culture of lateral violence in healthcare, many healthcare professionals choose to suffer in silence rather than call attention to any mental health challenges they are experiencing.

But as demand on healthcare workers increases, organizations must be more mindful than ever of the psychological stress their employees are experiencing. Now is the time to start addressing this stress and developing strategies to mitigate it.

Why Are Mental Health Services Important for Healthcare Workers?

Addressing all aspects of nurses’ and doctors’ mental health can help improve their well-being and professional performance. Poor mental health leaves many healthcare professionals feeling exhausted and less effective and can even result in a sense of depersonalization from their work, impacting their ability to provide safe, high-quality care.

Healthcare workers are also more likely to leave an organization if they find themselves without access to comprehensive support services when mental health challenges arise. This can lead to high turnover rates that result in staffing shortages that put patients in jeopardy. It can also directly impact a healthcare institution’s bottom line. According to the Work Institute, turnover costs an employer 33% of an employee’s salary. Applied to the average registered nurse’s salary of $75,293, that translates to nearly $25,000 in costs.

What Factors Impact Healthcare Workers’ Mental Health?

Many of the factors that impact an individual’s mental health, including high stress levels, long hours, and secondary trauma, are a normal part of a healthcare worker’s job. The COVID-19 pandemic is a particularly good example of how a universal experience can be especially damaging for healthcare workers’ mental health.

While it is not yet clear just how far-reaching the effects of the pandemic will be, researchers believe that the psychological impact will be significant — especially for healthcare workers on the frontlines. Recent studies have already reported an increase in depression and anxiety among healthcare workers at the epicenter of the outbreak, supporting predictions that healthcare workers, and particularly those working directly with COVID-19 patients, are at a high risk of developing traumatic stress disorders.

What Are the Mental Health Priorities in Nursing?

While mental health priorities will vary slightly between organizations, all healthcare institutions are encouraged to minimize job-induced mental health symptoms and provide comprehensive mental health support to their employees.

Unfortunately, mental health disorders are often presented as the result of broken people, rather than the result of a broken system — one that fails to equip employees with the mental health resources they need to thrive. Changing this narrative is the only way to reduce the stigma associated with mental health and ensure nurses and doctors receive the comprehensive support they need and deserve.

When outlining mental health priorities and creating new support services, many organizations choose to focus on the following:

• Depression

Depression is a common mental health condition in the United States, particularly among nurses and other healthcare professionals. According to an article published in The Clinical Nurse Specialist: The Journal for Advanced Nursing Practice, data analysis has demonstrated a depressive symptom rate of 18% among registered nurses. The article also claims that healthcare workers ranked third for depressive episodes among all occupations between 2004 and 2006.

These findings come as no surprise given the stressful nature of healthcare during even the best of times. When heightened by a pandemic like COVID-19, the stress can evolve and result in depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder.

• Burnout

The alarming rate of burnout among healthcare workers has been an important topic within the healthcare community for several years. The symptoms of burnout — which around 35% to 54% of U.S. nurses and physicians experience — are similar to those of depression. They include emotional exhaustion, depersonalization or cynicism, and a reduced sense of personal accomplishment. High patient loads, long shifts, complex care protocols, and high-stress, emotionally taxing situations can all contribute to burnout among healthcare professionals, harming their mental well-being.

• Moral Injury

Moral injury is another growing concern for healthcare workers, one with its own mental health consequences. Moral injury has been described as a “deep soul wound” that occurs when an individual feels they must perform or witness actions that violate their deeply held moral beliefs. Unfortunately, the complexities of today’s healthcare system often perpetuate moral injury, regularly placing healthcare professionals in conflicting positions. Moral injury can lead to depressive symptoms and contribute to burnout, interfering with a healthcare professional’s ability to perform their duties effectively.

• Compassion Fatigue

Compassion fatigue is a condition in which healthcare workers are no longer able to empathize with patients as a result of burnout and secondary trauma. Healthcare workers experiencing compassion fatigue derive little to no pleasure from their work and often struggle to get through the day. Compassion fatigue is the opposite of compassion satisfaction, in which healthcare workers find meaning and a sense of self-worth in their work. Like the other conditions here, compassion fatigue can directly compromise an individual’s job performance.

How To Support Your Healthcare Staff

While it’s impossible to completely eradicate the psychological toll of the healthcare profession, its impact can be mitigated through education and stigma reduction. By teaching physicians and nurses all about mental health and providing them with resources that encourage self-care and reduce burnout, organizations help retain their top talent and increase patient satisfaction. Strategies for improving mental health outcomes include:

• Recognizing the Signs of Burnout

Recognizing when employees are expressing signs and symptoms of burnout is one of the best ways healthcare administrators can be proactive about their employees’ mental health. Employees who are increasingly disengaged, regularly expressing a cynical or negative outlook, and even skipping work or arriving late could all be experiencing burnout.

• Encouraging Self-Care

Practicing self-care is easier said than done — especially in a profession that values endless resilience. It requires healthcare professionals to provide themselves with the same grace, compassion, and attention typically reserved for others. Healthcare administrators can promote self-care by modeling appropriate work-life boundaries and actively encouraging employees to use their PTO and take breaks during the workday.

• Hosting Educational Events

Hosting events that educate employees about mental health can help reduce the stigma that surrounds it. As part of these events, healthcare administrators should consider providing free mental health screenings that encourage employees to seek help early, and as needed.

• Sharing Resources

Managers must identify which mental health resources could benefit their staff the most, then work with HR to collect and share those resources accordingly. Providing employees with outside resources, including the contact information for mental health counselors and crisis hotlines, is also important

• Providing Meaningful Recognition

According to recent research, meaningful recognition of the sacrifices healthcare workers make can boost resilience and stave off burnout. Remembering to recognize staff for their efforts, whether through one-on-one interactions or team meetings, helps ensure employees feel valued and cared for.

Improve Your Teams’ Mental Health

Burnout, compassion fatigue, and depression have become an all-to-common occurrence among nurses and doctors, directly impacting their ability to perform their job to the fullest extent possible. It is up to healthcare administrators to create a workplace culture that openly addresses mental health wellness and encourages staff to seek support when needed.

Relias has put together a variety of resources designed to help healthcare organizations open the doors to improved mental health outcomes. Learn how to reduce burnout, address moral injury, and encourage self-care with Relias.


Are Your Nurses Experiencing Moral Injury?

Moral injury occurs when a person feels they must take actions, or witness actions, that violate their deeply held moral beliefs. When nurses find themselves in situations where they feel they cannot live up to their own values, or where their teams are not meeting high standards of care, they may experience negative feelings about themselves, such as guilt or shame, as well as feelings of being devalued and voiceless, which can lead to distrust of colleagues or of the leaders of their organization.

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