Worker Wellness: Fatigue and Burnout


This article was part of series of articles in Medical Environment Update that address the common types of injuries to strike healthcare workers, and how you as the safety professional can help them.

(Credit: SIphotography/Getty Images)

By John Palmer


They say your home isn’t safe without a strong foundation. Likewise, your car isn’t safe without good tires.

The same cliché can apply to your healthcare workplace. Without strong, healthy, happy, and well-rested healthcare professionals working for you, your clinic just isn’t as safe a place as it could be.

Part of your responsibility as a healthcare safety professional is to make sure that your workers are healthy. And this is the time to do it: the advocacy group Mental Health America has designated May as National Mental Health Month. Also in May, the President’s Council on Fitness, Sports & Nutrition sponsors National Physical Fitness and Sports Month. Many healthcare safety experts have long said that May is the perfect month to raise awareness in your own facility, and to help your workers take better care of their own health. The best thing to do is to make it part of your overall workplace culture, and to introduce safety and well-being into your training sessions.

So, as a way to get the conversation started with your employees about how important it is to keep themselves healthy and stress-free, we thought we’d share some of the advice from our healthcare safety experts.

Lend them a listening ear. Hands down, one of the biggest complaints from healthcare workers is that they feel like no one is listening to them, or that there is no process in place at work to report patient violence or safety problems, or just that they simply need an avenue to talk about their feelings—after all, they are working in one of the most stressful career paths, and helping other people with health problems can take its toll.

Some healthcare facilities have counselors on call—if not on staff—to help their staff members deal with life’s issues. Others will work to create peer groups consisting of fellow coworkers to give them a group to talk to that they can relate to.

“I’m seeing a trend, especially in the new staff and younger crowd where everyone is into texting so there’s no communication between people, and that’s a change from when I grew up,” says Linda Gylland, MLS (ASCP) QLS, lab safety officer for Sanford Health in Fargo, North Dakota. “People can’t cope with problems if they don’t talk with coworkers.”

Put them in control. Train employees to be in control of stressful situations. That could be as simple as training them to de-escalate potentially violent situations, or putting them in control of making decisions around the office—perhaps you let one of the nurses pick the training topic for this month’s in-service session. By allowing employees a little control over things, it shows they are valued and allows them to take more ownership over their jobs and careers—which ultimately leads to happiness and better job satisfaction.

It also might make your facility a much safer place for them to work. Many healthcare security experts agree that violence stems from anxiety and fear, and are proponents of de-escalation tactics that focus on calm talking and nonverbal language that can help give the message that they sympathize with the person. Learning these tactics can help your employees defuse a situation and give them the upper hand. This sort of control can lead to a much less stressful work environment. Call your local police department or consult one of many sources on the web to find a program that works for you.

Promote exercise and good nutrition. There is a cliché that people under a lot of stress feed their emotions, and that holds true in the healthcare environment, where long hours and stressful work conditions don’t always make for the best opportunities to eat right and get an adequate amount of exercise.

Some workplaces have turned to organizing a group of employees who walk together at lunch or after work, or offering an annual wellness benefit or discount at a local fitness club. Some facilities will even organize Zumba classes or other group exercise programs in their conference rooms.

To make sure your employees are eating at least one good, healthy meal a day, why not set up a “lunch bunch” or potluck breakfast or lunch where everyone brings in a healthy dish to share once a week? It’s fun, it shows off the culinary skills that your employees have, and it gives your staff a chance to take a break and socialize (which coincidentally, is a great way to relieve stress).

Put an end to bad ergonomics. Not all stress is of the acute kind—the sudden stress that comes from having to respond to emergencies with a moment’s notice. Workers who sit at a desk or at a microscope all day in a lab are also prone to the stress and fatigue that comes from repetitive motions of typing and from staring at a glowing computer screen.

These may not sound like very stressful situations, but there is a growing field of study devoted to the prevention of injuries caused by poor ergonomics over a long period of time. So yes, that pain in the wrist of the triage nurse who has been working for you for 10 years and types a lot every day probably is related. You may want to employ the services of an occupational therapist to help improve the ergonomics at your employees’ workstations. They can teach your workers about proper posture, keyboard position, and making sure that monitors are high enough to reduce neck strain.

At the very least, workers should be encouraged to take frequent breaks (at least once every 20 minutes) to stretch their legs and take their eyes off the computer screen to reduce eye strain. Many safety experts subscribe to the “20-20-20 rule,” which requires that for every 20 minutes at a computer screen, workers should look up for 20 seconds at something 20 feet away to give the eyes a chance to refocus and relax.

Give them some help in personal life. Financial troubles, family issues, and issues with childcare can also be stressors that can affect a person’s work performance. Give your employees a hand by offering childcare services, or invite a CPA to come in and give them a primer on personal finance. Also, a little stress relief can go a long way. Why not offer chair massages, a lunch out, bagels in the morning, even a free half-hour nap to help them recharge, relax, and take some stress off?


John Palmer was the Managing Editor for our partner publication, Medical Environment Update.


Related articles

Nine Ways to Prevent Physician Burnout

Physician Turned Writer Reflects on Burnout and Strikes a Chord