To take care of patients, first take care of yourself and your staff

My mother is a wise woman, and yet growing up I often ignored her advice because, after all, what could she possibly know that I, as a worldly 18-year-old, didn't already know? Spoiler alert: A lot.

Years later, as I juggled the demands of full-time work and my full-time responsibilities of caring for my family of four and complained that I felt like a failure at both because no one seemed pleased, my mom often told me, "Make yourself happy. That way you'll know at least one person will be happy."

She really was talking about self-care. It's a concept that flight attendants reinforce before take-off: In the event that the plane loses cabin pressure while at altitude and the oxygen masks drop from the ceiling, put your own oxygen mask on before assisting others. The message: the only way you can ensure that you are able to help others is to take care of yourself first.

It's also a concept that healthcare needs to embrace, and not necessarily as a message providers deliver to patients. It's a message that healthcare leaders must take to heart for themselves and for their staff, including clinicians, who are at most risk for burnout.

In a recent survey, 46 percent of doctors reported feeling worn down, and research reveals that many nurses feel stressed out, unsupported by management and overburdened. The problem threatens patient safety and can drive staffers out of the healthcare profession.

To address the problem, one nursing school is incorporating the practice of self-care into their curriculum to help future nurses better handle the day-to-day stress on the job. "If don't take care of yourself, you will not have the capability to take care of others," Susan Groenwald, R.N., president of the Chamberlain College of Nursing, told me.

Researchers tout the need for organizations to work toward the Quadruple Aim. In the quest to achieve the often cited Triple Aim--better health, better patient experience and lower costs--healthcare executives lost sight of one necessary component: the need to improve the work life of healthcare clinicians and staff. It's impossible to meet the Triple Aim goals otherwise, wrote study authors Thomas Bodenheimer, M.D., and Christine Sinsky, M.D.

There is no simple solution to help workers stay healthy and achieve a work-life balance. Insurers note that employee wellness programs have made great strides in improving the lives of their members. And hospitals, typically the largest employer in communities, often will institute no-smoking rules, enroll staff in exercise programs and offer healthy food choices in the cafeteria to keep staff healthy.  

But there are other stress-reducing strategies healthcare leaders can incorporate into the organization to prevent doctor and nurse burnout, including mindfulness meditation, animal therapy and art therapy. Other strategies don't involve cost at all. Simply encouraging staff to take a lunch or dinner break, take or walk or even visit the lounge for a break can help.

The key, Groenwald told me, is helping people discover what helps them regenerate so they can deal with stressful situations like the life-and-death cases doctors and nurses face every day.Ilene (@FierceHealth)

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