World Mental Health Day is October 10 and here at Matchwell we think it’s a great time to remember burnout is thriving. A once overlooked term that’s plagued the healthcare profession for decades is everywhere. There's no shortage of stories describing the mental and physical exhaustion healthcare workers are experiencing. The recent survey from the Kaiser Family Foundation and the Washington Post found that 62% of frontline healthcare workers surveyed reported COVID-related worry or stress harmed their mental health. In a nationwide survey of nearly 13,000 nurses conducted in December 2020 by the American Nurses Foundation, the most frequently cited symptoms experienced during the previous 14 days were exhaustion (72%), feeling overwhelmed (64%), anxious or unable to relax (57%), and irritable (57%). And sadly, the majority of nurses who are experiencing the harmful effects of their job are not seeking help because they feel as though they should be able to manage the stress on their own.
A few months ago, Matchwell published an article called "Real Talk: Healthcare Worker Burnout." In that article, we compared nurses and other healthcare workers to the famous children's story, The Giving Tree. Like the tree in the story, healthcare workers are giving and giving and giving, leaving many of us feeling like a tree-stump, stripped of our limbs and leaves. Yet even in our most depleted state, we are still showing up and giving what little is left of us to care for our communities. We challenged the industry to take a hard look at how nurses give of themselves, often to their own detriment. We also acknowledged the complexity of the problem and recognized that there is no easy solution.
The systemic issues of healthcare are not the nurses' or other healthcare workers' problems to solve alone. But what can healthcare workers do? After so many of us feel depleted, how do we refuel so we can continue to care for patients? To help us answer these questions and more is Sydney Thomas. She has spent a decade in the healthcare industry and recently retired to focus on her own passion project, Retirement Divas. She will provide healthcare workers with practical tips to incorporate into their everyday lives to help them move back to functioning at their full potential.
So tell us Sydney, do you consider yourself a mindfulness coach?
I wouldn't technically consider myself a mindfulness coach, although I do utilize mindfulness exercises in my coaching practice. I've written a book on mindfulness in collaboration with a not-for-profit organization which provides support and services to elders, and I’m about to start working on a second project specifically for care partners.
Interestingly, I just started a 7-week evidence-based training program on Positive Intelligence that employs mindfulness techniques as a powerful coaching tool. It's incredibly fascinating.
We hear the term “mindfulness” all the time now and it’s become ubiquitous with the term burnout. What is mindfulness and what does it mean to practice mindfulness?
Although the practice has been around for centuries, known by different names, the term “mindfulness” has gained a lot of popularity in recent years, which I think is a great thing. The Cambridge Dictionary defines mindfulness as “the practice of being aware of your body, mind, and feelings in the present moment, thought to create a feeling of calm.”
While that definition summarizes the basic concept of mindfulness, I don’t think it clearly conveys the actual value of mindfulness in a way that makes it clear why mindfulness is so important to our emotional, mental, physical, and spiritual well-being.
Here is a quote from Dr. Daniel Siegal, a clinical professor of psychiatry at the UCLA School of Medicine and co-founding director of the Mindful Awareness Research Center at UCLA, that I think really gets to the essence of what mindfulness is:
“Mindfulness in its most general sense is about waking up from a life on automatic and being sensitive to novelty in our everyday experiences. With mindful awareness the flow of energy and information that is our mind enters our conscious attention and we can both appreciate its contents and come to regulate its flow in a new way… by reflecting on the mind we are enabled to make choices and thus change becomes possible.”
Why is mindfulness important?
We live in a fast-paced world. Unless we’re highly intentional about avoiding distractions, we’re bombarded with all types of information and external stimuli from all directions that keep us in a nearly constant state of sensory overload.
And that’s not hyperbole. Here are a just few statistics about life in America that I find fascinating:
- 85% of us own a smartphone (Pew Research Center)
- We check our phones 96 times a day, that’s once every 10 minutes (PRNewswire)
- We watch an average of 3.1 hours of TV per day (U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics), but with more people home during the pandemic and streaming on their phones and other mobile devices, that number is probably much higher now.
- More than 90% of us multitask during virtual meetings (LinkedIn), even though most of us would never admit it.
As we all know, the COVID-19 pandemic has had a substantial negative impact on emotional and physical well-being, but healthcare workers and first responders have been particularly hard hit. For example, in Matchwell’s recent article on Post-COVID PTSD among healthcare staff, we cited a recent survey of healthcare workers conducted by Mental Health America (MHA). It found that 93% of healthcare workers reported experiencing feelings of stress and being stretched too thin.
Thankfully, there’s a growing body of evidence-based research that highlights the significant benefits available by practicing mindfulness to help alleviate some of the distress that so many are experiencing. Some of the most common benefits include decreased stress, a considerable ability to deal with illness and pain, less depression, and improved overall health.
And, there’s an increasing list of additional benefits of mindfulness that might surprise you, like improving sleep, helping to manage weight, decreasing loneliness in seniors, increasing attention span, and decreasing cognitive decline.
I think what’s most exciting about what science is telling us about mindfulness is that it’s been linked to physical changes in the brain that can be measured by an MRI, proving that the brain can change and adapt over time. An analysis of 21 neuroimaging studies found that 8 different brain areas were consistently changed in people who were experienced in meditation, of which mindfulness is a large subset.
There’s a great article at PositivePsychology.com that addresses research done on the benefits of mindfulness at work, which reports that mindfulness improves social relationships, promotes resilience, enhances task performance, and even enhances intuition or awareness of “gut feelings.”
Oftentimes with burnout mitigation practices, healthcare workers are made to feel it’s their problem to solve. Why is it important for employers to focus on mindfulness as well?
That’s a great question. Because by reducing stress and increasing resiliency, mindfulness is thought to be positively related to job satisfaction, which affects motivation, employee engagement, job performance, burnout, and turnover. An effortless way for employers to encourage their staff to practice mindfulness is to share a list of free or very low-cost mindfulness apps that are available. My personal favorites are Insight Timer, Mindfulness Coach (developed by the US Department of Veterans Affairs), and Synchronicity Sync.
Walk us through 3 of the most common and simple mindfulness practices healthcare workers can employ.
There are countless ways to practice mindfulness. I find that knitting and deadheading my flowers inspire mindfulness for me. Some people are mindful while doing everyday tasks like washing dishes, cooking, or folding laundry. There’s no right or wrong way to practice mindfulness; it’s all about what works best for each person.
However, employers can encourage their staff to consider some easy, quick, and non-disruptive mindfulness practices while working.
- Mindful breathing is the first suggestion that comes to mind. Since breathing is something that all of us do all of the time, regardless of where we are or what we’re doing, it’s the easiest way to start and maintain a mindfulness process. Believe it or not, there are several ways to focus on the breath, like taking long, slow, deep breaths and noticing how your chest and stomach rise and fall with each breath; counting breaths; and “2-4 breathing” where you count to 2 as you breathe in and to 4 as you breathe out, making the exhale twice as long as the inhale.
- Mindful observation, like paying particular attention to physical sensations in your body. Noting temperature changes when moving from one area to another or listening to the sounds of birds or cars when you’re outdoors. Honing in on the smells and tastes of food. Or, discerning your thoughts and feelings throughout the day. When are you feeling most energetic? Which parts of your daily routine make you feel most fulfilled? Which colleagues or patients recharge your batteries? Which ones drain them?
- Expressing gratitude is really a game-changer. It’s so easy to do, but at the same time so easy to take for granted. There are so many different ways to develop the healthy habit of becoming aware of the blessings in our lives and then expressing our gratitude for them. For example, you can intentionally look for good things around you. It could be the flowers in a vase in a patient’s room, a smile or joke from a colleague, or five minutes of calm in the middle of your shift. It doesn’t have to be anything significant. The point is to increase your awareness, savor the experience, and express gratitude, even if it’s just to yourself for noticing whatever it is that caught your attention in the middle of everything that’s going on around you. And if you’re grateful for another person, either something they said or did or simply for being who they are, be sure to let them know.
There’s no better time to start practicing mindfulness than right now. As we know, there is no quick fix or silver bullet to completely eliminate stress. Mindfulness is one tool you can utilize during the current pandemic and staffing crisis, both of which are contributing to burnout, turnover, and attrition. Additionally, if you find yourself feeling overwhelmed and hopeless or you are having thoughts of hurting yourself, please know there is help out there. Crisis Text Line has crisis counselors available for healthcare workers on the frontlines of COVID-19. There is also the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline that is available 24/7.
From Matchwell, and the global community, we want to thank you for choosing to care. Thank you for consistently showing up even though the demands of the job continue to exponentially increase. We, at Matchwell, are cheering you on along the way and will continue to fight to make healthcare better for you, your patients, and the communities you serve.
Other useful resources:
9 Mindfulness Exercises to Help You Manage COVID Stress (Fingerprint for Success)
Mindfulness: How It Can Help Amid the COVID-19 Pandemic (Yale Medicine)
Mindfulness for Healthcare Professionals (Mindful.org)
Beyond the Mountain Peak: A Guided Meditation for Healthcare Workers, 12-minute video (Simms Mann Center, UCLA)
COVID-19 & Mindfulness: Resources for Health & Care Staff (Healthcare Workers Care Network)
23 Amazing Health Benefits of Mindfulness for Body and Brain (PositivePsychology.com)
Mindfulness Exercises (Mayo Clinic)
Mindful Breathing, Dr. Roberto P. Benzo: Audio Files (Mayo Clinic)
30 Mindfulness Activities to Find Calm at Any Age (Healthline.com)