Doctors or Healthcare Workers: How to Stay Stress-Free at Work?May 5, 2021
When you look at most of your peers in the hospital, how many doctors would you say are living a stress-free day? Would the number be around 10% or a little higher? Maybe, 20% or 40%? How confident are you about this conclusion?
The idea is not to put you in a position where you are trying to judge how stressed your peers and fellow doctors in your hospital, geography, or area of specialty are. The goal here is to highlight a key point – you are not alone. Several doctors complain about workplace stress. But, somewhere between handling the next appointment and responding to an emergency – this idea of a stressed doctor gets lost in time.
Now, for a second, imagine a professional who has to deal with the following:
- Long Hours at Work: This professional easily puts in 60 to 100 hours per week, and usually more.
- Deal with Emotional Duress: This professional is surrounded by a varied set of emotions. She/he is often the ray of hope but can also be the bearer of bad news. No matter what, she/he has to keep her composure and poise intact – every day.
- Unpredictable Schedule: This professional has defined work hours. But, her nature of work is such that she/he can get a call in the middle of the night, after a tiring day, and she/he is expected to respond since it might be a matter of life or death.
- Pressure to Perform Consistently: She/he is expected to have consistent performance day in and day out. That is one of the reasons why she/he is considered the best in her/his area of work.
By now, you would have pictured an average workweek in your schedule where you dealt with long hours, emotional duress, the unpredictability of schedule, and the pressure to be consistent. Such is the nature of being a doctor – it is a noble profession and one which is important for society to function. But, it leaves a mark on the incumbents of the field, and stress is often that mark.
This post is about how to define, identify, and mitigate stress – the beast that stands between the work-life balance of a doctor and the satisfaction she/he can receive by being stress-free at work.
How to Define Stress?
Stress is a universal phenomenon, with significant academic literature in physics and organizational psychology laying the groundwork to help us understand its nature. But, understanding what stress is can be the first step to mitigating it. This is quite similar to diagnosis – to cure a disease, you have to identify it. And to identify it, you have to define what it is.
The problem with stress being a universal phenomenon is that there are several ways to approach its definition. Doctors, in particular, deal with stress in general and workplace stress as well. And both of them have some nuances worth noting.
The Cleveland Clinic highlights stress as a normal phenomenon which is the body’s response to an external stimulus often referred to as a ‘stressor.’ Every time the body encounters a stressor, it releases the response. This response often includes the nervous response taking control and increasing your heart rate, breathing rhythm, and vision. This results in a quick response when you face danger, resulting in the idea of ‘fight or flight.’ Such stress is normal and can even be useful in increasing performance in situations that require extraordinary attention – like being chased by a tiger or facing an emergency with a patient losing consciousness.
When the stress is long-term and taking a chronic form, it evolves into a challenge. Long-term or chronic stress can result in several physiological phenomena like chest pain, incessant heartbeats, dizziness, exhaustion, insomnia, high blood pressure, reduced immunity, loss of libido, and even digestive problems. On a more psychological front, stress can result in depression, panic attacks, and anxiety.
The other form of stress is the organizational psychological branch of workplace stress. The American Psychological Association defines workplace stress as the stress that comes from stressors present at the workplace. These include but are not limited to excessive workload, limited growth opportunities, constantly challenging work, lack of control on job-related decisions, and unclear demands at the workplace. If you look a little closer, you will find that most of these attributes can be associated with the everyday work of a doctor.
If you club the ideas of workplace stress and the consequences of chronic stress – you can see how several doctors can be at the risk of physical and mental issues if this stress is not managed.
Unhealthy Methods to Deal with Stress
Dealing with stress can be a rather lonely task since only doctors can understand the pressure of being a doctor. And taking up cues from only your peers might not be the best practice for every doctor dealing with stress. Hence, these are the unhealthy methods often used by doctors to deal with stress. It should be noted that the common denominator between these methods is that they exacerbate the impact of stressors in the long run.
- Ignorance and Avoidance.
Some doctors take it personally and might conflate stress with a lack of competence. “If she/he cannot deal with stress, she/he has chosen the wrong line of work.” – this is the response quite frequently cited by doctors who might be escaping workplace stress in some form. Such responses come from a place of fear.
- Reactive Responses.
These erupt in the form of changes in temperament. If they are allowed to become the go-to response for stress, the doctor might end up with anger issues over the long run.
- Unhealthy Coping Mechanisms – Excessive Eating, Substance Abuse, and Alcohol Addiction.
Such mechanisms give a temporary sense of relief but do not solve the problem. Medical professionals engaging in such activities make it more difficult for themselves to deal with stress and might even be putting their patients’ lives at risk with sub-optimal decision-making fogged by such addictions.
How to Mitigate Stress in a Healthy Manner?
The way modern medicine, its delivery, and its industry have evolved would mean that most doctors will not have control over their external environment. You will still have to respond to emergency calls, have long working hours, and might not be able to control your day with great force. That said – you can develop strategies to mitigate and manage risk.
1. Make a Journal of Stressors.
Most guides on managing stress would begin with exercising, meditation, and yoga as coping mechanisms. While these are healthy steps, your first step should be to create a detailed journal of your day at work.
Take an inventory of emergencies, people, and physical settings, as well as your reaction to such situations. Take account of details like an insubordinate associate or your food with extra butter. After you have enough data points in a few weeks, you will see patterns in stressors and your reactions to such sources. Begin with addressing these and determine the common and frequent stressors.
2. Develop a Healthy Coping Mechanism.
Now that you have identified the common stressors in your schedule, you can start building habits that make you mindful, resilient, and patient. Mindfulness meditation, exercising, sports, and yoga can be common ways to develop healthy coping mechanisms. There are several public sources to get more information on these. Here are some common ones to help you get started – yoga for beginners, workouts & sports, and mindfulness meditation.
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3. Draw Lines Between Work and Personal Life.
Stress can grow beyond the pressure applied by the stressor if its impact is realized in your personal life. You attended to more patients today and had an unnecessary argument at home. You had to pass on morbid news in the hospital and skipped an important family event in the week. These might seem to be unrelated events, but the correlation is causality.
As a doctor, both your personal and professional life are important to keep a healthy mind at work. And if you are unable to compartmentalize both areas of your life, it can become challenging to deal with stress right when the stressor is present. You can visualize this as an exercise in minimizing collateral damage – if it did not happen in that room, you should not exert a reaction.
4. Talk to People Who Can Help You – Supervisors, Friends & Family, and Professionals.
While it is true that you cannot control most of the stressors in your professional life, you can still find healthier practices or mitigate these stressors. If work has been testing your persistence every day, it might be worth talking to your supervisor and temporarily reschedule your availability. Talking to your friends & family and informing them about your stressors can help you get some cushion, manage expectations, and benefit of the doubt when you need it the most.
The final step is often the one frequently required – what will happen if patients dealing with a broken bone try to fix it themselves without any training, instead of seeing an Orthopaedic specialist? While fractures and stress are two different areas, professionals can ease the process of recovery and help you install healthy practices in your routine for a less painful experience.
Since stress is not an easy to recognize condition like a tumour or a headache, a large part of the problem is acknowledging it. Journaling can be a structured way to document this. Once you understand your stressors and your response to stress, you can start building healthier coping mechanisms like meditation, yoga, regular exercising, and even sports. Separate your work and personal life to minimize stressful responses and talk to your friends & family or seek professional help.
Remember the fact that you are directly responsible for healing and saving lives. Hence, it is your responsibility to ensure you are bringing a mind trained to identify and manage stress for delivering healthcare that people need around you.