Addressing staff stress

Self Care for Carers has been providing excellence in training in stress management and resilience for healthcare staff since 2012. Karen Brennan shares some of the key issues frontline staff are addressing when given the chance to open up and discuss stress at work, and outlines the simple approach managers can take to increase staff resilience and improve stress management.

Karen Brennan
Karen Brennan

With staff recruitment and retention to the fore, staff health and wellbeing are more prevalent in healthcare discourse than before. According to HSE figures, six in every ten staff felt that they experience work related stress which sometimes affects performance.
An example of the cause of stress staff are reporting is the changing profile of patients. As life expectancy increases, younger patients are presenting in larger numbers with chronic healthcare issues which necessitate attending hospital over a longer duration.

For example, in the area of renal dialysis, one nurse manager recently explained that earlier in her career, by and large patients were typically of an older age. As patients are younger, long term relationships build up between staff, the patient and their families which can be more stressful particularly when outcomes are not positive.

Staff abuse
In recent times, nurses at our workshops started reporting an increase in the level of abuse from the general public. This was well reported by RTE on December 15th last. https://www.rte.ie/news/2018/1215/1017315-nurses-assaults-hse/
The number of key high profile legal cases in the media hasn’t helped the public’s perception of trust in our healthcare services. It may indeed be that our front line staff are bearing the brunt of this frustration and it is a key cause of stress for many workers. This has been echoed at training nationwide.

Increasing patient loads
The growing number of patients presenting in particular areas of healthcare is also challenging. One hospital contacted us after seeing a 20% increase in oncology patients in one year. We were told of an incident where an overstretched oncology nurse refused to take any more patients onto a ward. After facilitating intensive resilience and compassion fatigue training at their department, staff were able to continue work with a greater sense of wellbeing and tools to use at stressful times.

Through our training, two main concepts are universally well received and effective according to attending health care staff. They are 1) increasing opportunities for relaxation and anxiety reduction and 2) helping staff to self care.

According to Eric Gentry, a US based researcher in compassion fatigue reduction, when staff practise ongoing relaxation and self care their compassion fatigue symptoms start to diminish in intensity and frequency. This can simply be interpreted as ‘Help me to relax and look after myself.’ Richards Branson’s quote “If you look after your staff, they will look after your customers, it’s that simple,” was echoed recently by a nurse working in children’s medicine who said “if management will look after the staff, we will look after the patients.”
Helping staff to understanding the underlying dynamics of compassion fatigue and their individual experiences of same is actually a simple enough exercise, though it is surprisingly powerful in a group setting.

Creating opportunities for staff to discuss this openly helps to normalise how they experience stress and makes it acceptable which builds trust. Organisations that use this simple approach are seeing a corresponding increase in the use of stress management by their teams which in turn has been shown to improve patient outcomes.

Karen Brennan is Director of Self Care for Carers, which provides resilience and wellbeing training for staff in caregiving roles. For more information visit www.selfcareforcarers.ie