Mental Health Awareness Month

May 14, 2023

How to Identify and Manage Workplace Stress in The Healthcare Industry

May is Mental Health Awareness Month, a time to recognize and support the millions of Americans living with mental health conditions. Mental health includes a person’s psychological, emotional, and social well-being and affects how we feel, think, and act. Like other forms of stress, work stress can lead to poor mental and physical health.

Workplace stress is the harmful physical and emotional effect when job requirements do not match workers’ resources or needs and affects 83% of U.S. workers. Further, 54% of workers report that this stress also affects their home life. In addition, the World Health Organization states that twelve billion working days are lost every year due to depression and anxiety alone.

Studies show that job stress is the major source of stress for American adults and that it has escalated progressively over the past few decades. Health workers are not the exception. On the contrary, this trend accelerated after the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, which introduced additional elements of fatigue, strain, stress, loss, and bereavement for healthcare workers, who experienced an increased workload in the face of staffing and critical personal protective equipment shortages. According to Stericycle’s 2022 Healthcare Workplace Safety Trend Report (HWSTR), 37% of healthcare providers reported feeling stressed at work, while 25% felt burned out.

If stress is not properly managed, workplaces may see some of the following negative effects, among others:

  • High absenteeism
  • High turnover
  • Poor performance and productivity
  • Low morale
  • Increased illness, accidents, and incident reports

Conditions to Which Healthcare Workers Are Exposed

Healthcare workers often place the well-being of others before their own. These actions are admirable but may be harmful if they prevent healthcare professionals from getting the help they need for their health and well-being.

The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), states that work in the healthcare sector often involves:

  • Intensely stressful and emotional situations in caring for those who are sick
  • Exposure to human suffering and death
  • Unique pressures from relationships with the patient, family members, and employers
  • Working conditions with ongoing risk for hazardous exposures such as COVID-19, other infectious diseases, hazardous drugs, and more
  • Demanding physical work and risk of injuries from patient handling, among others
  • Long and often unpredictably scheduled hours of work. Hours are often related to as-needed scheduling, unexpected double shifts, and unpredictable intensity of on-call work
  • For many health workers, unstable and unpredictable work lives and financial strain

Contributing Factors to Stress and Burnout in Healthcare Workers

Stericycle’s 2022 HWSTR reveals that healthcare professionals remain stressed, burnt out, and less safe at work, a trend that has continued in recent years.  

Nearly three in five providers (58%) and administrators (57%) surveyed say their level of stress day-to-day has gotten worse in the past year, citing the following as the most significant factors:

  • Increasing workloads
  • Longer hours
  • Less staff

In turn, stress, fatigue, frustration, and burnout are among the negative emotions felt by health professionals at work. In addition to the lack of drive, at least a quarter of providers report feeling unmotivated, having trouble concentrating and feeling concerned over their physical safety, significantly more than healthcare administrators.

Recommendations to Help Reduce Workplace Stress:

Healthcare professionals often work long and grueling hours and may sometimes struggle with grief and feelings of despair. Employers and employees can follow the recommendations below to help reduce and manage stress at work.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration provides recommendations to employers:

  • Have reasonable expectations: Encourage employees to make self-care a priority by maintaining consistent daily routines whenever possible, such as trying to get enough sleep, making time to eat healthy foods and taking breaks during work shifts to rest, stretch, or connect with supportive colleagues, friends, and family.
  • Know the signs and symptoms of stress: Experiencing or witnessing traumatic or life-threatening events affects everyone differently. In some cases, stress can be controlled to reduce its effects on health and behavior, while in other cases, the worker may experience clinical distress or impairment. Talk with employees to identify their stressors and work together to find solutions.
  • Know where employees can get help: Provide or share information on coping resources and mechanisms, resilience, and mental health. Refer to the induction guides for first-line supervisors and senior managers for tips and resources.

In addition, the American Psychological Association gives recommendations for workers to take steps to manage stress:

  • Track your stressors: Taking notes can help you find patterns among your stressors and your reactions to them.
  • Develop healthy responses: Exercising, making time for your favorite hobbies and activities, and getting enough sleep are crucial to effectively managing stress.
  • Establish boundaries. In today’s digital world, it’s easy to feel pressure to be available 24 hours a day. Establish some work-life boundaries for yourself.
  • Take time to recharge. Take time off to relax so you return to work feeling reinvigorated and ready to perform at your best. When you cannot take time off, get a quick boost by turning off your smartphone and focusing on nonwork activities for a while.
  • Learn how to relax. Meditation, deep breathing exercises, and mindfulness can help melt away stress.
  • Talk to your supervisor. Employee health has been linked to productivity at work, so your boss has an incentive to create a work environment that promotes employee well-being. Start by having an open conversation with your supervisor.
  • Get some support. Accepting help from trusted friends and family members can improve your ability to manage stress. Your employer may also have stress management resources available. If you still feel overwhelmed by work stress, you may want to talk to a psychologist who can help you better manage stress and change unhealthy behavior.

Healthcare professionals can access available resources tailored to their unique circumstances:

Optimizing a healthcare worker's environment and tasks, such as medical waste management, can help to reduce workplace stress. A simplified waste management process can contribute to lessened healthcare worker burnout. The use of multiple waste partners and complicated medical waste management protocols can increase pressure on staff. Stericycle’s 2021 HWSTR identified that hospitals can support their team and help reduce stress in the healthcare environment by implementing standardized medical waste management systems and protocols. Simplifying waste management with a single service provider may be the most beneficial option. 

Learn more about Stericycle’s integrated approach to medical waste management.

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