Healthcare can be among the most rewarding of career paths. You have multiple opportunities every day to make a tangible difference to the quality of patients’ lives. However, it can also be one of the riskiest industries. Depending on your job, working in medicine presents danger from disease exposure, even assault. Though one element that is present throughout most fields of medicine is stress. Given the current healthcare crisis, do we really understand the stress that healthcare workers are going through? The strain that healthcare workers and nurses have had to endure during the pandemic is something that we need to understand. They have been the frontline during this pandemic and it’s important that we applaud and appreciate their efforts and response during these trying and challenging times.
While we all expect some level of stress at work, it’s not an overstatement to say that healthcare workers experience a destructive level of strain. It comes from multiple sources, which contributes to its almost relentless nature. That so many still enter the field despite this is a testament to workers’ commitment to improving the lives of their patients.
Those pursuing healthcare careers need to consider the potential impact upon their wellbeing. We’re going to take a closer look at some of the key areas for review. What are the causes of strain? What are the knock-on effects? Are there practical methods to mitigate this while still embarking upon this worthy vocation?
Social and Psychological Contributors
When first starting out many of us aren’t clear on quite how wide-ranging the sources of strain are. When these take us by surprise, it often makes it difficult for us to make preparations or respond effectively. These are harsh realities of the healthcare profession, but it’s worth taking time to examine what aspects can contribute to burnout, and how they can affect us.
- Long Hours. This is common across most sectors. Not only is it usual for professionals to work 12-16 hours shifts, but they can also be expected to pull back-to-back shifts. As detailed in the linked resource, this is contributory to fatigue. Coupled with the often technical nature of the work, and the tense atmosphere, long hours can put significant mental, physical, and emotional strain on employees.
- Limited Family Time. Generally, long hours, the inconsistency of shift schedules, and the frequent need for overtime can have a detrimental effect on family life. Often medical professionals are unable to make plans for vital social visits and have to work much harder to maintain their personal relationships. A poor work-life balance and lack of social support are known contributors to burnout.
- Tense Environments. A lot is expected from medical professionals. This pressure can come from both external and internal sources. This expectation to perform, alongside the often constant overload of work, noisy surroundings, and emotional circumstances can make for a tense atmosphere. Not to mention that medical staff are often subject to threats of violence at the hands of patients. Long-term exposure to this environment is a recipe for burnout.
Perhaps most important to note is that work strain or burnout is rarely the result of a single one of these social or psychological contributors. It’s more likely to be the combination. This isn’t a suggestion that staff have inherent weaknesses or are more susceptible — quite the opposite. That so many medical staff continue in the field is to be taken as a sign of their significant fortitude. However, we are all human, and such relentless stress will affect us.
The Potential Side Effects
The potential for the strain is significant. While we must consider that from its potential to have a destructive impact on healthcare workers’ lives, we also have a responsibility to look deeper. The effect on individual workers is concerning, but the strain in this industry can have a domino effect that can cause additional, serious damage.
From a purely operational standpoint, the strain can contribute to absenteeism and higher turnover. Stress has both physical and mental impact on staff, which leads to the necessity for time off to recuperate. Not to mention that it is known to weaken the immune system — which is less than desirable in environments when exposure to contagions is naturally higher. Prolonged stress can lead workers to consider other professions or fields. New entrants into the field can even be discouraged by this. There are various contributors to the nursing shortage in this country, and stress and a poor work-life balance are among them. Failing to address this puts additional pressure on already overworked staff, exacerbating the potential for strain.
While healthcare professionals generally give nothing less than their all to their patients, we also have to address the worst potential consequence of strain. When prolonged stress is allowed to continue, fatigue can set in. Studies show us that fatigued and stressed medical staff make more mistakes. Errors in treatment at best lead to discomfort, at worst can be life-threatening. It’s worth also considering the cumulative and cyclical effect this can have, too. Healthcare staff making such errors may have a detrimental effect on their mental and emotional wellbeing, which in turn contributes to fatigue, which leads to more mistakes.
While this might seem to be a wholly negative issue for those seeking to enter healthcare fields, it’s also a useful piece of information to have. Knowledge of the potential consequences helps us to understand how important it is to exercise self-care. By remaining vigilant about our own wellbeing, and speaking out when strain starts to occur, we can serve ourselves, the industry, and patients better.
It’s all very well pointing out that healthcare is stressful, and has detrimental effects. What can we do about this? Sure in the long term we all must put efforts into improving the industry overall, but there are some practical approaches we can take now.
If you’re currently considering a career in healthcare, one of the most effective actions you can take is reviewing the fields and working environments available to you. While you’re unlikely to avoid stress entirely, you can look at which jobs offer both fewer pressures and provide the potential to operate in ways that mitigate the strain. Registered nurses today don’t necessarily have to spend all their time-intense clinical environments, they can also work remotely. This helps to provide a healthier work-life balance. Roles here can be varied, too — triage nurses can specialize in telemedicine, clinical appeals nurses review insurance appeals data from almost wherever they wish to work.
Often our biggest impact can be in our day-to-day efforts, though. Those in the healthcare industry are often there because they have a strong sense of empathy. We can best employ this in being open about where the stressful areas are, creating a dialogue across all levels of staff, and being supportive of one another. Encourage reviews of what aspects of the environment are making staff unhappiest and ways to improve. Put pressure on managers to acknowledge how much staff sacrifice to help others, and to make working hours more flexible to achieve a better balance.
Healthcare is one of the most challenging industries to work within. Most of us choose this sector because we have a strong desire to help others. But often the environment and circumstances make this detrimental to our own health. It’s important to understand the root causes of strain along with their potential knock-on effects. Armed with this knowledge we can make better decisions on roles we wish to enter, and how we can improve the industry for everyone.