In The Throes Of COVID Burnout, What Can We Learn From Healthcare’s Thrivers?

The pandemic is taking an unmeasurable toll on healthcare workers. They’re stressed, exhausted, disillusioned, and burned out. Some are crippled by PTSD.

Many are contemplating leaving healthcare altogether. If you’re one of the walking wounded—or a leader trying to help a whole team of them stay upright—what’s the solution? Is there one?

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“The answer is no, and also yes,” says Gary R. Simonds, MD, MHCDS, coauthor along with Wayne M. Sotile, PhD of Thriving in Healthcare: A Positive Approach to Reclaim Balance and Avoid Burnout in Your Busy Life (Huron|Studer Group Publishing, 2019, ISBN: 978-1-62218-108-7, $32.00). “COVID happened. It’s still happening. When it’s over, there will be other disruptions, other sources of stress and even trauma. That will never change.

“That’s the no part,” he adds. “The yes part is this: while we can’t change the nature of healthcare, we can build ourselves up so we are able to walk out of storms without being destroyed by them.”

Dr. Simonds and Sotile have spent decades pinpointing why some people emerge stronger from conditions that devastate others. Their book shares solutions based on their work developing a ground-breaking resilience program for an ultra-high intensity healthcare team.

“As we grapple with how to move forward in what feels like a war-torn landscape, we need to study healthcare’s thrivers,” says Dr. Sotile. “I know—it feels strange to use the word ‘thrive’ alongside a tragedy like COVID, but I don’t mean to be insensitive. We all deserve to find meaning, wonder, and enjoyment in our daily lives. That includes healthcare workers.”

The authors share a few of the resilience secrets healthcare’s “thrivers” have in common:

Thrivers grant themselves permission for self-compassion and self-care. This is the first of two critical factors in building and sustaining resilience. You will need to normalize the concept of self-compassion and self-care because many people in healthcare wear their self-neglect as a badge of honor. Notice what makes you feel good or bad; what angers and excites you; and what brings you joy, peace, wonder, or meaning. Make micro-and macro-adjustments as needed.

They nourish and cherish their relationships. This is the second critical factor for healthcare workers. We are social creatures, but the intense work of healthcare can be isolating, and our fatigue after work hours isolates us further. Because we are tired and drained, we may stop going out and developing new friendships. It’s critical to stop this cycle and fully commit to nourishing your relationships—with coworkers as well as loved ones.

They debrief the challenges of the day and celebrate the uplifts. Sharing hurtful experiences from the dark side of your work life—disappointments, embarrassment, confrontations, resilience breakdowns, etc.—can build empathy and lessen the pain. When you share (or listen to colleagues as they share), focus on the effect of the experience(s) rather than the details. How did it feel? What were the lessons learned? How could the storyteller have managed the events or his or her responses to them differently? Likewise, make a habit of seeking, collecting, and reflecting on daily uplifts. This is not just a feel-good ploy. Multiple studies support the concept that “collecting” uplifts can significantly boost well-being and counter psychological distress.

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They celebrate being part of the healthcare team. In the midst of your daily work, it is important to keep sight of what you and your colleagues are all trying to do. No matter what part you play in healthcare, your work contributes—it has real meaning, and you should revel in that fact. If you are not directly involved in patient care, your influence may feel more abstract. Try to trace the steps from your particular work to its eventual impact on the care of a single patient who is sick or injured. It’s likely that the degrees of separation are very few, no matter your job.

Thrivers demystify and partner with leadership. Work on breaking the “us versus them” mentality. Don’t just take comfort in the notion that there’s a team dedicated to facilitating your work efforts, but befriend and engage them in your efforts to provide high-quality, high-efficiency work. Seek to understand your leadership’s infrastructure; learn how decisions are made and enacted, and identify the key players in your sphere of function. Take any opportunity to meet and chat with them and educate them on your role, and volunteer for institutional committees. Get involved. Be known; be seen. When there’s a problem, don’t rail at your administrators. Calmly discuss problems with them and bring a selection of possible solutions.

They maintain healthy habits no matter how busy they are. You must find balance between working hard and getting enough rest, exercise, and good nutrition, so you can maintain your physical and mental health. A few tips for building healthy habits:

  • Commit to getting frequent exercise—even if only in 15-minute bursts during your work break. Schedule movement into your calendar and show up for it no matter what.
  • Seek balance in your food/drink intake. Discuss your diet with a nutritionist and learn to cook some healthy meals at home (restaurant food is loaded with sugar and fat!).
  • Bring healthy snacks to work so you won’t be tempted to indulge in junk food. Apples, oranges, celery, and nuts are good options—just watch your portion control.
  • Save sodas for occasional treats. Drink water or diluted fruit juice instead. Stay hydrated!
  • Practice good sleep hygiene. Avoid extended naps during the day; limit non-sleep-related activities in your bedroom; keep your bedroom dark, quiet, and cool. Avoid alcohol and screen time just before bed and clear troubling thoughts by focusing on positive events.
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They take “humanity breaks,” large and small. If you feel captive to the world of near-constant multi-tasking and endless demands happening under artificial lights and accented by unpleasant sights and smells, take short breaks to focus on positivity, quiet, laughter, fresh air, and humanity. Enjoy a brief break in the morning and another respite in the afternoon for coffee, chatting with colleagues, or meditation. If possible, consider a weekly extended humanity break, where you step away from responsibilities for an hour or two in the middle of the workday. Leave the premises, have lunch, take a walk, soak up some sun, or run a pleasant errand.

They create schedules and stick to them. In the face of utter chaos, creating a schedule gives you a sense of control and can improve your efficiency and efficacy. Buy a nice planner and break the workday into concentrated bundles of related work. In your off-time schedule, include meals, self-care, exercise, reading, studying, play, chores, intimacy, and sleep. Repeat the mantra, “If it is not planned, it will not likely occur.”

They steer clear of perfectionism. If nothing is ever good enough, you may overthink and fret compulsively over every detail of everything you do. Make an effort to eliminate the concept of perfection from your thinking and from your approach to your work. Beware of signs of maladaptive perfectionism, such as chronic procrastination, being overly cautious and thorough in tasks, excessive checking, and avoiding trying new things and risking making mistakes. Develop, instead, a quest for excellence. Remind yourself that excellence always leaves room for improvement. You can strive for success while allowing yourself to be less than perfect.

Finally, those who end up thriving over the long haul aren’t afraid to reach out for help when they need it.

“We all have a breaking point and some reach it sooner than others,” says Dr. Sotile. “There’s nothing shameful in a physician, clinician, or any healthcare worker going to a leader or a mental health professional and saying ‘I’m not okay right now.’”

COVID has shown us that we desperately need to shift the culture inside healthcare organizations,” adds Dr. Simonds. “We need to break the ‘mental health stigma, we need to fix systemic issues that exacerbate these problems, and we need to give people the tools and support they need to build up their resilience. These are huge tasks, but our people are worth it.”

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Gary R. Simonds, MD, MHCDS, and Wayne M. Sotile, Ph.D., are coauthors of Thriving in Healthcare: A Positive Approach to Reclaim Balance and Avoid Burnout in Your Busy Life (Huron|Studer Group Publishing, 2019, ISBN: 978-1-62218-108-7, $32.00), The Thriving Physician: How to Avoid Burnout by Choosing Resilience Throughout Your Medical Career (Huron|Studer Group Publishing, 2018, ISBN: 978-1-62218-101-8, $32.00), and Building Resilience in Neurosurgical Residents (B Wright Publishing, 2015, ISBN: 978-0-69244-951-6, $24.95).

Dr. Simonds is a highly experienced clinical and academic neurosurgeon. He trained at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center and completed a medical research fellowship at the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research. He also holds a master’s degree in health care delivery science from Dartmouth College. He is a professor at the Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine, the Virginia Tech School of Neuroscience, and the Edward Via College of Osteopathic Medicine. Known for his compassion and broad neurosurgical expertise, Dr. Simonds has personally performed over 13,500 operations, adult and pediatric. His interests have included socioeconomic issues affecting patient care, medical ethics, education of all levels of learners, and the promotion of wellness in medical practitioners and trainees. He recently retired from his position as chief of neurosurgery and residency program director at Carilion Clinic-Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine.

Dr. Sotile is the founder of the Sotile Center for Resilience and the Center for Physician Resilience, in Davidson, North Carolina. Of the 45,000 people they have coached or counseled, more than 70 percent have worked in healthcare, including 12,000 physicians. Dr. Sotile is an international thought leader on resilience and work/life balance for busy professionals. He has published widely in the peer-reviewed medical literature and has authored nine books. His work is featured frequently in the national print and television media, and he has appeared on Good Morning America, CBS This Morning, Dateline NBC, and other broadcast programs. As one of the most sought-after keynote speakers today, Dr. Sotile has delivered more than 9,000 invited addresses and workshops to audiences of high-performing professionals across disciplines. He consults nationally with organizations interested in deepening workforce resilience and leadership passion and effectiveness. Dr. Sotile earned a BS degree in psychology from Louisiana State University and a PhD in clinical psychology from the University of South Carolina. He completed his clinical training in medical psychology in the Department of Psychiatry at Duke University Medical Center.

About the Book: 

Thriving in Healthcare: A Positive Approach to Reclaim Balance and Avoid Burnout in Your Busy Life (Huron|Studer Group Publishing, 2019, ISBN: 978-1-62218-108-7, $32.00) is available from major online booksellers and the Huron|Studer Group website.

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