Supporting Stress Management in the Health Care Workplace

Content below WAS developed by Nhi Luu, Canadian Mental Health Association 

Stress and stress management in the workplace have long been topics of interest for both employers and employees. We often hear that stress is unavoidable and expected when it comes to employment, but for health care professionals the degree of chronic stress endured throughout the COVID-19 pandemic is an issue that deserves concentrated attention and thoughtful response. 

Health Care Workers face unique occupational stressors consistent with experiences of grief and loss related to exposure to human suffering and death, moral conflict and distress, health, and safety risks from hazardous exposures, long and inflexible work hours, job role ambiguity with redeployment practices and staffing shortages, as well as overall demanding work often without sufficient resources. All these and other compounding factors have escalated since the onset of the pandemic and exacerbated stress levels resulting in poor mental health for Health Care Workers.

Employers are seeking mental health support for Health Care Workers to better manage symptoms of burnout, occupational stress injury, trauma, compassion fatigue, depression, and anxiety. When such symptoms are left unmanaged, it can result in illness, higher job turnover, absenteeism or presenteeism, and other stress related manifestations that can severely impact mental and physical health. Sometimes when individuals experience this level of prolonged stress, they may be depleted of their awareness or capacity for self-help. Furthermore, individuals who are struggling with mental health challenges may not seek support because of stigmas and negative associations. Therefore, more upstream interventions are encouraged. 

At the organizational level, employers can positively influence the mental health culture in the workplace by allowing for more flexible and accommodating shifts so Health Care Workers can seek mental health support during times that might otherwise interfere with scheduled shifts. Another intervention could include actively promoting employee and family assistance plan (EFAP) benefits, as well as community mental health resources to staff members. Many employers are acknowledging that staff mental health and well-being via psychological health and safety needs to be embraced as a priority in the workplace to support staff on the journey toward recovery from the pandemic. One of the many resources available for workplace mental health support is Your Health Space (YHS), a free workplace mental health program developed by the Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA), Ontario. This program is exclusively available to health care organizations throughout Ontario. 

As a Health Care Worker – what can I do to support my own mental health?

Individuals who have the energy and mental capacity for self-help can try to exercise various tools or strategies to help them gain back control and better manage stress in the workplace. The goal here is to refocus the stamina and energy that is remaining and prevent that from being further depleted by choosing where one can invest existing energy to help them recharge. Sleep, rest and relaxation, exercise, good nutritional intake, supportive social networks, and relevant skill-building training are a few things that can help to reenergize oneself to positively cope with stress. 

Another effective strategy to manage stress on the spot is to first recognize and acknowledge stress. It is beneficial to recognize what one’s stress response might look or feel like, and subsequently identify the stressor or trigger that is causing the stress response. This level of self-awareness will enable individuals to recognize stressors and utilize coping mechanisms in future exposures. For example, a nurse shows up to work to find out that their workstation had been used by someone else and is now in complete disarray and missing equipment. This environmental stressor may trigger a physical response of sweating and blushing. Emotionally, this nurse could start feeling overwhelmed, confused, and disoriented. It can also trigger thoughts such as “this is a mess and I don’t know where to even begin” or “I am going to run behind schedule, my whole morning is ruined”. Instead of dwelling and sinking into an emotionally driven cycle of discouragement, with practice, the nurse could immediately recognize that they are experiencing stress and identify their trigger (in this case it is the disorganized workstation). Now the nurse can focus on troubleshooting and removing the trigger. 

By acknowledging the stress experience, individuals can switch from the reactive part of their brain to the conscious logical part of the brain. This makes it easier to calm down and problem solve. Reframing, reorganizing, and using positive psychology are other tools to help manage stressful situations at work. By effectively taking care of one’s mental health at work, individuals can build better resilience and adaptability, increase mental well-being, and respond better to future stressors.  

YHS offers psychoeducation opportunities to professionals working in health care organizations. From Leaders to Health Care Workers, as well as Support Staff, YHS’ evidence-based program seeks to provide participants with practical tools that they can start using to support well-being in the workplace. Trainers who lead YHS’ interactive workshops each have a background in health care and are skilled at delivering training workshops in person, virtually or via eLearning modules. Through creating safe spaces for learning, practical application, and connection, YHS is here to support you and your organization with challenges such as workplace stress. Health care organizations can find out more information and register on the Your Health Space website.

Nhi Luu is a Trainer with the Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA), Ontario’s Your Health Space program. Her background is in nursing, and she has worked in various healthcare settings including hospitals, primary care, and public health. Nhi uses her clinical background to reinforce her mental health training with employees across healthcare organizations in Ontario.

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