Local health care organizations help prevent caregiver stress and burnout | VailDaily.com

Local health care organizations help prevent caregiver stress and burnout

Tracey Flower
Special to the Daily

"How are you feeling today?"

It's a question nurses, doctors and other clinical health care professionals ask their patients every day but one they might rarely be asked about themselves in return.

According to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, health care workers often experience some of the most stressful situations found in any work environment. The stressors endured by health care workers can lead to physical and psychological symptoms, absenteeism, turnover and medical errors.

As a result, some health care institutions are offering programs and benefits to their employees with the goal of mitigating stress and ensuring their caregivers are, in fact, regularly being asked how they feel each day.

"There is no doubt that being a professional caregiver can be stressful, and it is critically important that we acknowledge this and deal with it on a proactive basis," said Sheila Sherman, chief nursing officer at Vail Valley Medical Center. "If a caregiver is stressed, it is going to be difficult to provide the level of care we expect and our patients and families need."

According to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, factors that may lead to worker stress in health care settings range from work overload, time pressures and lack of role clarity to dealing with infectious diseases and difficult, ill or helpless patients. The institute recommends a combination of organizational change intervention and stress-management intervention to help control workplace stress for health care workers.

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Examples of organizational change interventions include giving workers opportunities to participate in decisions and actions affecting their jobs, reducing uncertainty about career development and future employment prospects and providing opportunities for social interaction among workers.

Examples of stress management interventions include trainings in several areas, such as coping strategies, biofeedback — a technique that uses electrical sensors to help you learn to control your body's functions, such as your heart rate — time management and interpersonal skills.

Pathways to Excellence

Vail Valley Medical Center offers a variety of employee benefits and wellness programs to help reduce stress, Sherman said, many of which align with the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health's recommendations. Programs range from gym discounts, employee recreational sports teams, complimentary tai chi and yoga classes to SafeFit, a musculoskeletal wellness program for employees provided by Howard Head Sports Medicine. Other programs include financial support for professional development and a shared governance policy, which allows staff to participate in decisions that impact their work.

Vail Valley Medical Center is also currently working toward achieving Pathways to Excellence designation. According to the American Nurses Credentialing Center, Pathways to Excellence is an organizational credential that recognizes health care facilities that have created positive work environments where nurses can flourish.

To earn Pathway designation, a health care organization must demonstrate that it has integrated 12 practice standards into its operating policies, procedures and management structure. These standards focus on the workplace, a balanced lifestyle for nurses and policies that support nurses on the job.

"We are very hopeful we will achieve our designation as a Pathways to Excellence organization within the next year," Sherman said. "Once fully adopted, this program guarantees a work environment that promotes work-life balance and overall well-being."

'Sharpening the saw'

In order to further support employee emotional health and well-being, Vail Valley Medical Center offers patient experience workshops.

"In our patient experience workshops, which we have provided to more than 800 of our employees, including our clinical staff, we focus on two emotional intelligence skills." Sherman said. "First is self-awareness, where we learn how to recognize our feelings, why we're feeling the way we do, what caused those feelings and how our feelings affect others. Second is empathy, the ability to understand what others may be feeling and thinking.

"We also talk about the need to 'sharpen the saw,' which is a Stephen Covey metaphor for making sure we take care of ourselves, with the relevance being for a care provider. The idea is that if you don't take care of yourself, it's difficult to take care of others. Sharpening the saw encourages one to be mindful of maintaining a balance in life, focusing on four areas: mind, body, spirit and social/emotional."

Living a balanced life

Staff members at Colorado Mountain Medical are also encouraged to strive for a healthy balance between work and the rest of life.

"Full-time providers and staff at Colorado Mountain Medical work four-days weeks," said Dr. Diane Voytko, family medicine physician and vice president of Colorado Mountain Medical. "That extra day off gives us more time to play and to spend with family and friends."

In addition to providing employees with a shortened workweek, Colorado Mountain Medical also has an on-site employee-assistance program with psychologist George McNeill, who will work with any of their staff in need of counseling or advice to cope with work stress.

Employees of Colorado Mountain Medical also look for ways to manage work stress on their own, both by taking advantage of the unique range of recreational opportunities offered in the Vail Valley and by cultivating strong, supportive relationships with one another.

"Many of us live in Colorado for the lifestyle," Voytko said. "Getting out in these beautiful mountains every chance we get helps nourish the soul and reduces the effects of stress. We rejuvenate ourselves by skiing, snowboarding, skinning, hiking, mountain biking, kayaking, etc. Many of us actively practice yoga, Pilates, meditation and mindfulness. We also have a collaborative practice and try to support each other in any way that we can, with a hug, a smile, a sympathetic ear or a piece of dark chocolate on a rough day."

Stress on the job

Here are 10 methods used by health care organizations to reduce worker stress:

1. Educate employees and management about job stress.

2. Establish regular staff meetings and discussions to communicate feelings, gain support and share innovative ideas.

3. Establish stress-management programs.

4. Provide readily available counseling from a nonjudgmental source.

5. Provide flexibility and innovation by supervisors to create alternative job arrangements.

6. Provide group therapy for staff with particularly difficult professional problems, such as dealing with cancer patients, chronic illness and death.

7. Use individual approaches such as relaxation exercises and biofeedback to relieve symptoms of stress until the sources are identified and evaluated.

8. Provide frequent in-service educational sessions and other opportunities to improve skills and confidence.

9. Provide more flexibility and worker participation in scheduling (possibly a 10-hour, four-day work week).

10. Give workers opportunities to participate in decisions and actions affecting their jobs.

Source: Occupational Safety & Health Administration (www.osha.gov)