7 Ways You Can Support the Mental Health of Healthcare Professionals

June 5, 2023
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* This blog is part of the Flexible Nursing and Allied Health Workforce series.

It’s no secret that healthcare can be a physically demanding job, and until recently, many have not considered the significant effect working in the medical field can have on mental health. The global pandemic brought the already-present issue to the forefront. The strain on allied healthcare professionals to accommodate patient needs with a limited supply of necessary equipment and ongoing uncertainty has fueled mental health issues. As a result, healthcare professionals often experience burnout.

Some leaders believed that mental health issues were individual rather than systemic. Yet, reacting to individual mental health issues doesn’t address the underlying problems.

Burnout Has Become an Occupational Phenomenon

Until recently, many people considered burnout a stress syndrome, but the World Health Organization (WHO) now classifies burnout as an “occupational phenomenon” resulting from unmanaged, chronic workplace stress. The change in definition won't solve the problem, but it may increase awareness of the need to proactively address healthcare professionals' mental health.

Despite increased understanding, healthcare professionals’ mental health has not rebounded. In a recent Frontline Nurse Mental Health & Well-Being survey, 75% of respondents reported burnout, with 66% experiencing compassion fatigue and 64% indicating feelings of depression or a decline in physical health.  

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is usually associated with active and retired military members. Still, nurses and allied health professionals who routinely deal with occupational stressors such as violence, trauma, and death can be at an increased risk. Critical care nurses reported significant levels of burnout and rates of anxiety and depression higher than the general population. These reports put them at an increased risk of having PTSD and leaving the nursing profession altogether.  

Caring for Our Most Valuable Resource  

Despite nurses reporting experiencing suicidal thoughts at twice the rate of the average American adult, many are reluctant to seek help due to concerns about job security.  

Our healthcare professionals are our most valuable resource. With them, we can provide the quality care that our patients deserve. But we must also consider that caring for our employees' mental health is even more essential. Being physically present at work while suffering from emotional strain can harm our staff, patients, and businesses.  

Healthcare professionals often work long hours performing physically and emotionally demanding tasks. Those who don't feel supported and push through their work while suffering from burnout or other mental illnesses can be an occupational hazard. The mental toll will impact them personally, making it harder to focus on patient care and negatively impacting your organization.

The Real Cost of Mental Health Disorders

Those who work in healthcare strive to provide compassionate, quality care. It's essential for job satisfaction, reimbursement, and patient satisfaction. Yet, providing patient care can be challenging if someone has a mental illness and struggles to care for their own needs.

Anxiety and depression, two of the most common mental health disorders, have been reported to lose one trillion dollars in global productivity, with $193 billion in lost earnings in the U.S. Depression is responsible for up to 400 million lost workdays. But lost work is not the only concern for healthcare professionals.  

Ignoring mental health can risk more than financial losses. For nurses, mental health issues can have significant and even life-or-death consequences for patients by risking the quality of care, leading to potential medical errors and patient dissatisfaction. In addition, mental health issues can lead to burnout and low morale, ultimately resulting in health professionals leaving the job or profession.

Stress Shouldn’t Be Part of the Job

While we're accustomed to screening our patients, we should remember to look at ourselves and our staff. Many healthcare professionals experience emotional exhaustion, depersonalization, and job detachment but often don't share their mental challenges.  

They may think they should be able to cope independently or that they'll get over it. Some  believe dealing with recurring, overwhelming stress is part of the job. Others may hide, deny, or not recognize the symptoms of burnout. Or they may imagine that admitting to a need for treatment would be viewed as a weakness. As healthcare leaders, it's our job to be aware of these symptoms and create a culture where health professionals feel comfortable speaking up and seeking help.

Recognize Burnout in Your Healthcare Professionals

Burnout is more than ordinary fatigue and can lead to physical, mental, and emotional exhaustion. Coping with daily stressors becomes a challenge, let alone caring for someone else’s needs when suffering from overwhelming feelings. This risk makes ignoring symptoms of burnout in health professionals more significant, as burnout may lead to other health issues. It may put patients at risk, if your staff members continue to work untreated.  

The symptoms of burnout and depression are similar. The connection may make some feel they have burnout when it's depression, and it may only worsen things if they receive the wrong or inadequate treatment.  

Having burnout doesn't mean that a diagnosis of depression is inevitable, but it can increase the risk. According to the WHO, burnout exhibits the following symptoms:

  • Mental and physical exhaustion
  • Mental distance from the job or cynicism about the job
  • Reduced efficacy in the workplace

Avoid making assumptions since the cause of burnout and how the symptoms manifest can vary. Some may feel that the demands on nurses and allied health professionals, often the cause of burnout, are inherent to the job. These include working long hours due to staffing shortages, changing shift schedules, and increased administrative burdens.  

Other causes of burnout derive from the healthcare system's systemic challenges, the care needed for the aging baby boomer population, and the COVID-19 pandemic. A shortage of nurses has, in turn, led to more and longer shifts. This expectation has placed greater demands on individual nurses during each shift, which makes the need for increased mental health awareness imperative.

Prioritize Mental Health  

Wellness is about developing a culture and providing your nurses and managers with the tools to succeed. Knowing how to empower others can help make a healthcare professional's job more manageable and fulfilling while positively contributing to their mental health.  

Examine your workplace culture to determine if it provides support, encourages meaningful conversation, and builds positive relationships. Attempting to maintain unrealistic work standards of trying to do it all can leave staff feeling less engaged and may lead to exhaustion. This result may negatively impact workplace culture and create a continuous cycle of burnout. Healthcare professionals shouldn't have to choose between their work and personal life.

There are ways to help nurses and allied health professionals manage their mental health before issues can lead to exhaustion, inefficiencies, or burnout, like the following:

  • Normalize conversations about mental health. Feeling mental health issues are socially unacceptable is a common belief, making them uncomfortable to discuss in the workplace. This stigma may cause some staff to hide their fatigue or frustrations while keeping their distress a secret. Encourage your team to express their concerns and listen to and learn from their feedback.

  • Encourage managers to establish a debrief. Medical professionals experience intense, ongoing stressors. If staffing issues accompany these, there may be little to no time to process a distressing event. Scheduling a routine debriefing, or requiring one after an incident, can allow time to address concerns and identify issues.

  • Provide internal resources. The American Nurses Association's (ANA) well-being initiative offers a variety of resources to help nurses prioritize their mental health care. These include creating a wellness room to decompress, offering employee assistance programs, and providing educational opportunities.  

  • Promote self-care in the workplace. Healthcare professionals are caregivers, but often neglect caring for themselves. Encourage your staff to communicate overwhelming feelings to reduce multitasking, slow down to be present, and delegate tasks as appropriate. Accepting our limitations can give us more energy to devote to prioritized tasks while delegating to others.

  • Educate your employees. Leaders who promote self-care can increase awareness of nurse burnout while proactively addressing it. Help staff identify the early signs of burnout or other mental health issues in themselves and their coworkers and encourage the implementation of early treatment. Consider bringing in speakers or looking within your organization to draw upon the resources you may already have in your behavioral health group.

  • Offer opportunities for advancement. Incorporating cross training and encouraging professional development allows healthcare professionals to learn new skills and provide the potential for future progress. This change in environment may reignite their passion for the profession, and help convey each position's value in meeting the organization's goals.

  • Provide coverage for workforce shortages. Communicate with your staff and address concerns and issues with their workload, work-life balance, and ability to find meaning in their work. If needed, allow for cutting back part-time or provide coverage through contract staff to cover emergency leave, short-term coverage, or planned extended leave. Consider the time spent as an investment in their retention that will save money in the long run.

Mental Health Support Today May Pay Off Tomorrow  

Offering support for the holistic needs of your nurses and allied health professionals is essential. Prioritize nurturing a work environment that normalizes conversations about mental health, gives resources, and strives to support healthcare staffs’ wellbeing. Supporting their mental health needs ultimately provides positive benefits for the organization.  

Start planning today to ensure adequate staffing during workforce shortages with a workforce strategy. Consider supplementing your staffing schedule. Staffing agencies can help support your healthcare workers’ mental health needs by offering them the opportunities to recover and maintain a better work-life balance. Taking the time to rest and recharge may do more than reduce stress and ward off related health problems. It may help your staff keep the passion alive that inspired them to pursue healthcare.

As a clinically led staffing partner, Health Carousel focuses on a global view of the healthcare workforce's sustainability. With a desire to invest in the well-being of nurses and allied health professionals, we are more than just filling a staffing gap. Using our ethical recruitment processes can help international nurses succeed in the work they enjoy and help hospitals practice prevention to cover unexpected leaves that could increase patient loads or prevent staff from taking time off. Drawing from and growing the global workforce supports healthcare professionals' mental health by creating happier employees who feel comfortable taking time off when needed while still maintaining quality patient care standards.

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About Health Carousel

Health Carousel is committed to partnering with world-class healthcare facilities across the country, providing rewarding assignments for Registered Nurses and Allied Health Professionals, and attracting the best internal talent at all career levels.