How to Manage Stress if You’re a Healthcare Worker

Healthcare workers are essential workers—they are and always will be a vital part of any community when it comes to keeping people safe and healthy. But this year more than ever, as a global pandemic ravages families and inundates hospitals with patients, we have been reminded of just how important they are. 

But these heroes who put their lives on the line to save others, although possessing something akin to a superpower, are not immune to the stress that often results from working such a taxing and high-stakes job. If healthcare workers aren’t able to manage their own stress, they won’t be equipped to handle the high demands of today’s reality. More importantly, they’ll likely feel extremely overwhelmed and unhappy, something that, with all the sacrifices they already make on a day-to-day basis, should not be added to their plates.

Here are some of the ways to tell if a healthcare worker, whether it's yourself or someone you love, may be feeling stressed out from their profession, and how to begin managing it. 

Signs your stress levels may be getting out control

A healthcare worker with her hand on her head looking stressed.
Dealing with stress during a pandemic isn’t abnormal, but healthcare workers want to make sure that their stressful work environment is not negatively impacting their wellbeing or quality of life. Image courtesy of OSF Healthcare.

Being stressed during COVID-19, a time when everyone’s health and wellbeing are at risk, is, to some extent, normal. But this does not mean it should be overlooked or allowed to control one’s life. 

According to the CDC, symptoms of stress healthcare workers may feel include any or all of the following:

  • Feeling irritation, anger, or denial
  • Feeling uncertain, nervous, or anxious
  • Feeling helpless or powerless
  • Lacking motivation
  • Feeling tired, overwhelmed, or burnt out
  • Feeling sad or depressed
  • Having trouble sleeping
  • Having trouble concentrating

In addition, the CDC notes that witnessing traumatizing events, like the death of patients, affects everyone differently. While some healthcare workers may be able to handle the stress of their job, others may suffer from burnout and post traumatic stress disorder. It is important to remember that COVID-19 does not affect every healthcare worker the same way each day.  As a result, the needs of every healthcare worker will be different and should be looked at individually.

Ways to keep stress levels in check

A healthcare worker standing outside of a building holding a cup of coffee.
While healthcare workers may be experiencing overwhelming feelings of stress, there are several things they can do to mitigate the toll they have on their lives, like finding time to go outside and get a breath of fresh air.  Image courtesy of News Medical.

In a global pandemic, so much may feel like it exists beyond our control. But there are some things that healthcare workers can do in order to lower their stress levels to make them manageable.

Make sure to take care of yourself

Healthcare workers often preach self-care to their patients, but it’s also something extremely applicable to their own lives, especially now.  An influx of people diagnosed with COVID-19 might mean feeling swamped with work or having to work extra hours, making a healthcare worker’s schedule even more hectic than it was before. Regardless, it is important to make sure that despite these crowded schedules, that basic needs are still being met. 

Find time to eat every meal:

Carve out some time—even if it’s only 15 minutes--to eat every meal every day. In other words--don’t work through meals, and don’t do work while eating your meals. While tempting--this can be an effective way to save time—meals provide your body the proper nourishment it needs as well as time to step away from stressful work. Skipping out on them or not giving yourself time to step away from work will lead to burnout. 

Get enough sleep:

Another tip that may seem slightly obvious but often overlooked in practicality. The sleep foundation recommends that adults get between seven and nine hours of sleep every night. While the amount needed can vary between person and person, the main point is that you’re going to need more than just a few hours each night in order to be alert, awake, and productive the next morning. 

Get outside; stay active:

Staying physically active may pose itself to be a little trickier than making sure you’re still eating and sleeping, as often there isn’t a designated time of day to do it. Still, finding time to either get your heart rate up a little or to just experience a breath of fresh air can help break up the indoor monotony of the pandemic, which often makes the passage of time confusing and indecipherable.

Physical activity also pumps the brain with endorphins, a feel good neurotransmitter that can help create feelings of happiness and positivity. Not to mention, getting a natural high from exercising is a great alternative to other forms of coping with stress that may be not as healthy, like eating sugary foods or drinking alcohol. 

Connect with others

Two healthcare workers in PPE consoling each other.
Talking about stress with other colleagues is a great way for healthcare workers to get the support they need when overwhelmed with stress. Image courtesy of ESAIC.

There’s no doubt that COVID-19 has changed how we connect with others, but this doesn’t mean that we can’t connect with others at all. Virtual hangouts over Zoom and socially distanced meetups may not seem ideal, but they still offer a way to get in touch with the  people who are important in our lives. Feeling like you’re not alone can be extremely beneficial when dealing with a difficult circumstance, and, whether you choose to discuss your stressful occupation with your loved ones or not, knowing that there are people who support and are there for you can be an asset in itself.

Carve out time to do nothing but relax

Odds are this one might be especially difficult for healthcare workers, who are often selfless individuals who prefer to focus on how they can make others feel comfortable before they think about ways to help themselves relax. Still, healthcare workers are people nonetheless, and everyone should be able to enjoy and benefit from down time. Doing so will likely make them more relaxed

Think about types of activities that help you unwind. Do you like to read books? Take a long bath? Stream a TV show? Finding time in your day when you don’t have to think about work--or the stress associated with it--can help ground you and make you less overwhelmed, thereby making you more equipped to handle the stressful situations your job will throw your way the following day.

As always, seek outside help if you need it

Despite taking measures in your life to reduce stress, you may still feel extremely overwhelmed and hopeless. If at any point your stress feels like it’s too difficult to manage, remember that you don’t have to struggle alone—reach out for support. 

Depending on what your needs are, this might take the form of talking about some of the stress you feel from work with a colleague or friend. Or, it might mean seeking out a therapist to sort through some of your feelings with. In more dire circumstances, it may require immediate intervention from resources like the National Suicide Prevention Line or the Disaster Distress Helpline. 

Either way, there is no shame in asking for help. The only thing tougher than living through a pandemic is having the highly stressful and risky responsibility of taking care of those affected by the same virus that created it in the first place. Healthcare workers are expected to do both, so it’s crucial that they are able to manage the inevitable stress that comes with their jobs.

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