Stress In Healthcare Professionals: The New Norm?
by Philip Hemphill, Ph.D., LCSW
Are you subject to pressure or tension? Do you experience emotional, physical, or mental strain? Are you avoiding more? What about feeling overstretched, overtaxed, pushed to the limit, worried, harassed, or anxious?
You know…just go with it…it’s what we do…you signed up for it…right?
In 1845, Thoreau lamented, “Men have become the tools of their tools.” This obviously reflects our intimate relationship with technology today as we continuously pay partial attention, experience the digital fog with techno-brain burnout, or may struggle with data smog and frazzing (frantic ineffectual multitasking.) However, I believe stress has ‘crept into’ our lives at such a powerful rate most are not fully aware of its impact and have just accepted it as reality. How dangerous is this? How much is it contributing to us becoming stressed?
Most know the classic definition of stress as, “The discrepancy between the demands of a situation and the capacity of the individual or group to deal with it comfortably.” Have you paused lately to reflect on what your demands are and what are your capacities? Caution! You may be ill-prepared for what you discover.
Take a moment now to monitor your body’s response to the above words, the thoughts that have flashed through your mind, and your behavior during the past minute. Please don’t judge. Hopefully, you have a better awareness of yourself as a whole person and get in touch with your Herbert Benson, MD (considered the father of relaxation with The Relaxation Response, 1975 and The Mind/Body Effect, 1979.)
As a professional, you probably have refined your adaptation skill set to include the interactions between the traumatic histories you are exposed to routinely, your personality style/traits, your personal history, and the social/cultural context in which you exist. You have accepted the fact that you will ‘experience the stress and trauma of others’ which forces you to construct meaning as it occurs and recurs in everyday living. It’s inescapable. New information and experiences are constantly being assimilated, remember Piaget “All development is organizational and All organization developmental.”
Signs of distress as a practitioner include but are not limited to:
- Working longer hours
- Missing deadlines
- Drop in productivity
- Conflicts with co-workers
- Resentment over pay
- Inability to take feedback
- Personal discouragement
- Apathy toward symptom stress
- Emotional/physical drain
- More severe signs of professional burnout may include:
- Exhaustion (e.g., “I feel exhausted due to my job as a counselor”)
- Incompetence (e.g., “I do not feel like I am making a change in my clients”)
- Negative Work Environment (e.g., “I feel frustrated with the system in my workplace”)
- Devaluing Client (e.g., “I am not interested in my clients and their problems”)
- Deterioration in Personal Life (e.g., “My relationships with family members have been negatively impacted by my work as a counselor”)
As the tension between your professional needs and obligations impacts with your personal ones, consider the powerful work on HARDINESS by Salvatore Maddi. He reveals to us the three C’s.
- Commitment – means making the maximum effort at whatever you are doing—involving yourself in it totally.
- Control – means that you believe and act as if you can influence events taking place around you. You reflect on how you can turn situations to your advantage.
- Challenge – means you consider change natural. Instead of fearing it, you anticipate it as a useful stimulus to your personal development.
Consequently, he explains that existentialists believe that to choose the future regularly requires courage. Without courage, one may choose the past regularly, which stagnates your quest for meaning. Have you embraced his model of Hardiness? Consider your attitude of commitment (vs. alienation), control (vs. powerlessness), and challenge (vs. security)? It offers an opportunity to operationalized existential courage. Hardiness has been shown in research to enhance performance and health, despite stressful changes, and to increase perceptions and actions consistent with choosing the future.
This new insidious stress level demands our attention. Self-care which includes: 1) avoiding workaholism, 2) making time for hobbies, leisure, family, and friends, 3) maintaining solid professional training, 4) therapeutic self-awareness with regular self-examination by collegial and external supervision, 5) limiting caseload if necessary, 6) developing alliances with medical mainstream and academic medicine, 7) engaging in opportunities for research, 8) Keeping a balance between empathy and a proper professional distance with clients, 9) receiving social recognition for your work, and 10) integration of work into the general health care system may alleviate some feelings of isolation and marginalization.
Love What You Do = Lower Stress
Finally, DiSalvo (2013) in Forbes listed the 10 Reasons People Really Love Their Jobs. See if you can identify yourself in any of these.
- They feel connected to their initial challenge.
- They’re remarkably well-attuned to the early years.
- They are portfolio thinkers.
- They don’t care what you think.
- They are born succession planners.
- They will stay, but they’ll also leave.
- They won’t be stopped.
- They draw people to them without even trying.
- They live in the now.
- They never limit their vision to serve petty competitiveness.
Hopefully, you can link your personal and professional missions, which allow you to have a more rewarding, enriched life. Remember the ‘norm’ is defined by you, so the new norm isn’t far away for you to embrace. The choice is yours. Protect your career and your mental health by learning how to deal with stress at work.
Devilly, G., Wright, R., Varker, T. (2009). Vicarious trauma, secondary traumatic stress or simply burnout? Effect of trauma therapy on mental health professionals. Australian and New Zealand Journal of Psychiatry 2009; 43:373385.
Kintzle, S., Yarvis, J., and Bride, B. (2013). Secondary Traumatic Stress in Military Primary and Mental Health Care Providers Military Medicine, 178, 12:1310.
(Lee et.al., 2007). The Counselor Burnout Inventory (CBI) 20-item self-report scale separated into five subscales.
Media Immersion and Hyperreality (Walsh, 2011; Small & Vorgan, 2008; Wehrenberg & Coppersmith, 2008)
Puig, A., Baggs, A., Mixon, K., Park, Y.M., Kim, B.Y., & Lee, S.M. (2012). Relationship between job burnout and personal wellness in mental health professionals. Journal of Employment Counseling. (2012) Volume 49.