Safeguarding worker wellbeing
After almost two years battling through the challenges of the pandemic with virtually no respite, research has revealed the drastic toll on the mental health of frontline hospital workers. And it’s easy to see why. Hospital staff have worked — and continue to work — around the clock in high-stress, high-pressure environments, risking their personal wellbeing, and often without access to sufficient personal protective equipment.
Healthcare workers have exhibited higher rates of anxiety, depression and suicidal ideation during this time compared to the general population. A study by The Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Psychiatrists (RANZCP) conducted on a Melbourne hospital during the pandemic revealed over 20% of healthcare workers showed significant symptoms of moderate to severe depression and anxiety, while 29% presented with symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder.
In responding to the ever-evolving challenges of the pandemic, Australia’s healthcare system has been stretched beyond capacity, putting healthcare workers on the brink of burnout. In 2019, the World Health Organisation (WHO) officially recognised burnout syndrome as an “occupational phenomenon” due to its high prevalence. It is defined as a state of emotional, physical and mental exhaustion caused by excessive and prolonged stress. For healthcare workers, other contributing factors may include high-pressure environments, poor work-life balance, insufficient support from leadership or feeling a lack of control over, or simply overwhelmed by, work itself.
Research from RANZCP shows between 20% and 80% of healthcare workers suffer from burnout with symptoms including exhaustion, detachment, cynicism and a reduced sense of achievement. As a consequence, morale and workplace wellbeing declines and patient care becomes compromised.
In an industry centred on caring and supporting others, extending this same care towards our frontline workers has never been more important. As we prepare for COVID-normal, leaders must act to prioritise the mental and physical wellbeing of their teams and ensure staff have the necessary frameworks in place to prevent and recover from burnout.
Make time for recovery
In a fast-paced environment where staff are under constant pressure, finding time to recover and reset after a demanding period can feel impossible. For this reason, leaders must lead by example and empower staff to follow suit. Make use of your leave entitlements and encourage staff to do the same regularly. Provide space for your staff to unwind and recharge their energy levels, even if this is just a quiet corner of the break room. It’s also worth considering staff wellness incentives such as quarterly spa vouchers or gym memberships to encourage staff to prioritise their physical and mental wellbeing outside of work.
Leading with care
Compassion towards patients is a fundamental part of any caring profession, but it’s important leaders also extend this compassion to their staff, particularly during periods of high stress.
Compassionate leaders have a deep focus on caring for others and the organisation’s ‘greater good’. They encourage, support and lead with care and humility, and as a result, they often enjoy stronger connections with staff and higher levels of trust. By practising and nurturing compassion amongst teams, leaders will help to boost morale, foster greater psychological safety and mitigate against stress and burnout by ensuring staff feel seen, heard and cared for.
Fostering connections between teams and departments will improve collaboration, communication and team morale, while minimising the hierarchical structures that are often prevalent in hospitals. Try to touch base with your team on a daily or weekly basis to see how each team member is travelling physically and emotionally. Offering the time to listen to their concerns will enable you to build trust and establish a sense of comradery.
It’s also a good idea to schedule in a regular professional debrief session to talk through the events of the week with your team. This will provide an opportunity to spot the tell-tale signs of burnout or trauma and identify potential gaps or risks to staff wellbeing.
Cultivate psychological safety through leadership trust
Built on the foundations of leadership trust, psychological safety is one of the most vital ingredients for, and symptoms of, a healthy workplace. Defined as the shared belief that it’s safe to take risks and think creatively without fear of admonition, psychological safety can be understood as the climate inside an organisation that compels you to either keep your head down or feel willing to speak up and share ideas. Instead of over-caring about the consequences of getting it wrong, staff understand they’re more likely to be rewarded for speaking up in the first place. This is particularly important for younger healthcare workers in the early stages of their careers. As leaders, ensure that your communication clarifies that speaking up is okay and even encouraged.
As a leader, establishing a strong trusting relationship with employees is essential, as psychological safety can’t exist without this. Leadership trust is the mutual confidence between leaders and teams which enables individuals to operate independently and feel comfortable voicing an idea or suggesting change. Leadership trust is fostered around connection, steadiness, compassion, integrity, purpose and trust action. With these elements in place, staff will be willing to take a risk and behave in a way that may lead to failure knowing they are backed by their leader.
Both individually and collectively, resilience helps us lead under pressure, maintain an optimistic outlook during periods of turbulence, navigate change with agility and bounce forward from setbacks. The power of resilience in business is that it acts as a buffer during particularly stressful or busy periods, preparing and enabling us to maintain balance in our lives, protect our wellbeing and sustain high performance at work.
Resilience gives leaders the ability to transform businesses and teams by cultivating greater psychological safety, fostering creativity and innovation, and increasing engagement, communication and purpose. Significantly, resilience also mitigates burnout and reduces the risk of a downward spiral. Proactively, frontline workers should be trained in resilience skills that are refreshed each month, including quarterly resilience assessments. Resilience coaching and EAP support may also be valuable here.
The challenges of the pandemic have taken a sizable toll on the healthcare industry at large. These strategies will equip leaders to protect staff mental health as COVID-19 cases continue to climb. At the end of the day, it has never been more important to safeguard the resilience of your greatest asset — your staff.
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