Stress-management tips for health care workers

If you work in health care, stress is a constant. These tips will help you control it before it controls you.

Stress-management tips for health care workers

Whether you're an ICU nurse dealing with life-or-death situations, a social worker counseling clients through traumatic events, a pharmacist faced with prescription quotas or another type of patient-care worker coping with your own pressures, learning how to handle stress at work in the health care industry is critical to managing your health care career.

Ongoing stress can manifest itself in a host of physical and psychological symptoms, including headaches, sleep disturbances, poor concentration, and depression. Research suggests that high stress levels may impair the immune system and increase the risk of cardiovascular disease and cancer.

Read how three health care professionals cope with job-related stress, and see how you can apply these strategies to your own career:

Talk it out

Myra Rolfes is a nurse in the neonatal intensive-care unit (NICU) at Children's Healthcare of Atlanta, where babies with life-threatening genetic problems are treated.

"Kids die in our unit pretty frequently," says Rolfes, a 25-year veteran of the hospital. "Sometimes there is nothing we can do but provide support to the family. It's pretty stressful."

Rolfes was near emotional burnout once after several patients died, but talk therapy got her through. "A team of chaplains meets with us regularly to talk about the stress and provide emotional support," she says. "Sometimes the staff gets together right in the NICU [to] talk it out and support one another. That really renews my spirit."

Some of the hospital's workplace benefits, such as an on-site massage service and discounted gym memberships, can also help employees figure out how to handle stress at work in health care jobs. In addition, the hospital runs "Club Med," a wellness program offering photography, yoga and other classes designed to reduce stress and encourage work/life balance.

Fight compassion fatigue

Compassion fatigue -- the stress that comes from caring too much -- can strike any health care worker. Because they care so deeply about their patients, health care professionals who listen to stories of fear, pain and suffering can find themselves empathetically experiencing similar emotions.

Karl LaRowe, a Vancouver, Washington-based licensed clinical social worker, learned about compassion fatigue firsthand. "I was drawn to working in a very busy, inner-city emergency room in Portland, Oregon, with many people who were experiencing traumatic stress, similar to my own past personal history," he says. "This reexposure continually set off personal trauma issues, resulting in severe and persistent depression."

LaRowe's doctor prescribed Prozac for his symptoms. When the drug therapy failed, LaRowe turned to Qigong breathing exercises to relieve his stress. Now he teaches this ancient Chinese healing technique through his public-speaking engagements.

Other strategies for dealing with compassion fatigue include increasing social support, banishing feelings of self-blame and guilt, and participating in community or charitable events.

Get to the root of the issue

Before joining the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, pharmacist Aliya Smith worked for a major chain drugstore. "The corporation seemed most interested in the number of prescriptions filled and not the actual well-being of the customers and employees," she says.

Smith found the stress of meeting deadlines and quotas in retail so great that she shifted her workplace environment, a move that psychologists term getting to the root of the problem.

"In the case of someone who is in a job that is a mismatch with their personality and preferences, switching to another role and/or organization is likely to be a much better stress-reduction technique than any other," says Ben Dattner, PhD, principal of Dattner Consulting, an organizational consulting and research firm in New York City. "However, confronting the ‘real' cause of stress can itself be stressful, because it involves recognizing that one must make real changes rather than just applying Band-Aids to the problem."

Simple stress busters

If changing jobs isn't an option, learn how to handle stress at work in health care with a few simple techniques as part of your day.

"Exercise is one of the best stress busters, because it forces deep breathing," says Bob Losyk, speaker, consultant and author of Get a Grip! Overcoming Stress and Thriving in the Workplace. "Deep, cleansing breaths combined with shoulder shrugs and head rolls help muscles to relax. Even those little squeeze balls help relieve muscle tension throughout the day."

And don't be afraid to show some emotion. Studies show that both laughter and tears are natural stress mitigators.