If you’ve ever seen one of the medical TV dramas such as “ER,” “Grey’s Anatomy,” “Code Black” or the reality-based TV shows with behind-the scenes looks at emergency rooms, those programs give you only a small glimpse of what it would be like to be a health care professional.

More than any other sector of the workforce – more than combat veterans, police, fire and rescue personnel, airline workers and middle school teachers – individuals who work in the health care field experience higher levels of emotional stress and burnout.

Studies show that one out of three health care workers experiences high levels of stress, with primary care and emergency medicine staff burnout rates approaching 50 to 60 percent.

The high burnout levels become clear when you think about what it is these individuals do every day. As a health care professional, you could be caring for a child with leukemia, or working with a patient with end-stage dementia, or yes, even treating trauma patients in a busy ER.

But even working in a normal health clinic, your day could include everything from treating strep throat to counseling a patient on his diabetes care. The work is hard. Health care is what is known as “a high-reliability industry.” Errors can be devastating, and the pressures of time, technology and physical endurance take a steady toll on the workforce.

How does this matter to you? First, it is likely that you have a family member or friend employed in a health care setting. Second, when people are stressed and burned out, they do not function at their best. Poor functioning is reflected in metrics such as staff turnover, exiting the profession, patient safety, quality of care and the mental and physical health of the workers.

Burned-out health care workers may not be able to focus on patient safety and quality improvement. Many preventable employee injuries and patient errors could be avoided with greater attention to stress management and work-life balance strategies.

We as a society invest significantly in the professional preparation of the health care workforce. Health care profession students and their families make tremendous sacrifices to train for a career in health care.

Yet we must be concerned with preparing these individuals for a future in a field with rapid change, high stakes, frequent stress and exposure to crisis. And once they’re employed in high-reliability settings such as hospitals and medical offices, we must be absolutely clear that we value their personal well-being, too.

Resilience training is needed in academic preparation and in the health care workplace. Think a bit about some disturbing evidence. Thirty-seven percent of newly licensed nurses are thinking of leaving their jobs. One study reported that 60 percent of the physician respondents considered leaving clinical practice. Health care professionals experience work-related injuries 30 times greater than other industries.

What can be done? As institutions of higher learning, we encourage the development of training and support for the young health care professional. Many effective techniques exist that can increase the ability of people to cope with the responsibilities of their profession.

University of Southern Maine and University of New England recently hosted a national expert in safety culture, Bryan Sexton, Ph.D., of the Duke University Health System, at the fall Patient Safety Academy conference on the USM Portland campus.

Several hundred interdisciplinary professionals from all corners of Maine, and all different types of health care settings, listened attentively as Sexton recited study after study confirming the negative personal and professional effects of the high-stakes and high-stress environment of health care.

In the end, though, the news he delivered, was actually positive. Sexton’s research has found that there are many simple and effective techniques that can build resilience to decrease burnout, depression and work-related conflicts – the primary one being exercises in gratitude.

Specifically, gratitude publicly expressed from employers, co-workers or patients – appreciating the significantly hard work these professionals do every single day – is extremely effective in preventing burnout. And gratitude from the employees themselves – Sexton found that the simplest expression of gratitude toward someone who has made their lives better had a lasting impact on staff, for days, if not longer.

At the Patient Safety Academy, we are committed to sharing the tools and resources that encourage people to continue to practice their chosen profession in a manner that allows them not only better work-life balance and a higher level of happiness, but also keeps them and their patients safe.


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