0 Comments | Nov 04, 2010

Helping Healers: HR Challenges for Healthcare Providers

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We’re fortunate to serve a number of healthcare providers, which is interesting for two reasons.

First, healthcare professionals understand the benefits of stress reduction. That’s not a surprise, as the medical research on the link between stress and adverse health outcomes is impressive and growing by the month (download a white paper here).  Stress plays a significant role in all five leading causes of employee death, and costs American businesses over $300 billion every year.  It makes sense that human resources employee benefits teams in the healthcare field would be at the vanguard of employee stress mitigation as business strategy.

The second important point is that the healthcare field is a high-stress environment. Employee wellness programs (VacationWellness™ among them) and other stress mitigation efforts are gaining traction exceptionally quickly due the pressure and stress inherent to many careers in the healthcare industry.  Several factors contribute:

  • Healthcare professionals often work long hours, which is a double-whammy.  Long days at work increase fatigue, which lowers immune function and mental stressor coping capacity.  Long days at work also represent the loss of opportunity to spend time in other valuable life pursuits, such as taking care of household needs, spending time with family and friends, exercising, and resting.  The cumulative effect elevates stress levels.
  • Healthcare professionals have enormous emotional investment in their work. Many of us consider our work to be important, and strive to be at our best while performing our jobs, but emotional and cognitive work investment are at a completely different level for many in the healthcare field.  Those providing patient care are often witness to tragedy, suffering, pain, and struggle, and many see families during their most desperate hours.  Hands-on providers are participants in both miracle and tragedy, an emotional roller-coaster with fulfilling highs and devastating lows.  The emotional and mental strain has a very real physical side effect in the form of stress and its many associated maladies.
  • Healthcare professionals work irregular schedules. Patient care is often a 24/7/365 business, requiring providers to work ever-changing hours that often conflict with their natural sleep schedules.  Chronic and acute sleep deprivation reduce coping skills, decrease immune system function, hamper critical thinking and reaction times, and lead to greater aggregate and acute stress.
  • Healthcare professionals are subject to increasing bureaucratic encumbrances. The demands of healthcare legislation, insurance documentation, and haggling with insurance companies over payment for services and procedures, have all added exponential complexity to the professional environment over the past several years, and new medical records requirements promise to provide even more red tape.  Bureaucracy diminishes individual effectiveness, which increases employee stress levels.

Human Resources professionals in the healthcare field often see the effects of employee stress in the form of increased workforce turnover, higher absentee rates, increased accidents, greater interpersonal conflicts at work, more employee family difficulties, and even elevated suicide rates.  It’s a challenging environment, and looking after healthcare professionals takes significant effort.

Through our interaction with a large number of hospital HR executives, we’ve compiled a list of employee stress reduction best practices to help:

  1. Make time off mandatory. Don’t allow healthcare professionals to bank their vacation days.  Force them to get away from work, leave the cell phone and pager behind, and unwind.  As you might have guessed, Vacation Wellness™ can help them make the most of their time away, but the important point is that employees need to take dedicated time to relax.  One to two weeks consecutively is recommended.
  2. Offer a robust wellness suite. Healthy behaviors, such as diet, exercise, smoking cessation, talking with professional counselors about difficult life issues, etc., all serve to reduce stress, lower risk of disease, and reduce likelihood of burnout and depression.
  3. Stabilize employee work schedules. This is not always possible, but to minimize physiological stressors, employees should not be forced to switch frequently between day, mid-, and night shifts.  A rotation is often required in order to “share the pain” of late night work shifts, but the rotation should last long enough for employees to recover from the change to a new schedule.  One month should be considered the bare minimum.
  4. Remain vigilant for adverse signs of stress. Missed work or tardiness, errors while on the job, irritability, difficulty with coworkers, family difficulties, increased smoking or alcohol consumption, or significant changes in diet and mood can all provide clues to an increased stress condition.  Intervene early.

Helping the healers is a tough job, but a concerted effort to reduce employee stress through robust employee health and wellness programs, EAP offerings, and old-fashioned care and concern, can go a long way toward keeping your healthcare providers healthy and happy.