Healing within the health community begins with empathy

Editor’s note: Adrienne Boisy is the Chief Medical Officer of Qualtrics and a practicing neurologist at the Cleveland Clinic.

Violence against caregivers is widespread and of increasing concern to us in the healthcare community. The deadly shooting in Tulsa, Oklahoma, is just the latest attack to make national headlines. Earlier that day, June 1, a security guard was fatally shot by a patient at a hospital in Dayton in my home state of Ohio.

Places of worship are under attack and many of us feel overwhelmed with grief and anger. Our caregivers can’t take on much more – and they shouldn’t have to.

Worryingly, workplace violence is several times more prevalent in health care than in other professions, and the pandemic has made patients even more frustrated in care facilities. In April 2022, a study found that nine out of 10 healthcare workers have experienced or been in close proximity to workplace violence. This, combined with the mental health crisis and exhaustion from multiple bouts of COVID-19, is fueling a burnout crisis.

Months of high stress, trauma and personal risk have taken their toll and led to a record number of resignations among healthcare workers. Approximately one in five have stopped smoking since the start of the pandemic.

A recent Qualtrics study of US healthcare workers identified pandemic-related burnout as the top workplace stressor, followed by labor shortages. Nearly one in three healthcare workers plan to leave their jobs in the next year.

Our health care system cannot accommodate much more employee turnover without compromising care. Overworked and overworked, many healthcare workers do not feel safe and supported. With just over half of nurses reporting that their manager cares about their well-being, something gets lost in translation.

We need to protect our caregivers who dedicate their lives to caring for us. I’ve spoken with some amazing leaders who make sure to walk the floors of every shift to listen and learn, model self-care, and be transparent about what they can change and what they can’t. They know that supporting healthcare workers means listening to what they’re feeling, understanding their challenges, putting gratitude into everything and acting on employee feedback to support their wellbeing and create a safe workplace environment.

A better understanding of the emotions workers experience and thoughtful intervention will allow healthcare workers more time, energy and space to focus on what matters most – caring for themselves and each other so they can best care for the patient.

Much of the last few years has been about grief: our collective loss of normalcy, of big events and celebrations, of time spent with family and friends, and the social constructs that hold us together.

Empathy for patients must begin with empathy for ourselves as caregivers. Many healthcare leaders demonstrate empathy by acknowledging their own vulnerabilities and emotions. They intentionally create safe spaces for others to share and listen, check in regularly to show care and concern, and tell stories about us at our best. We also saw how healthcare organizations are showing empathy by providing open access to mental health services, implementing peer support programs, raising collective voices to call for action, and integrating trauma-informed practices to build trust and safety between patients and staff .

The Institute for Healthcare Improvement has created a compelling set of practices and resources for healthcare workforce well-being, and IHI Senior Fellow Stephen J Swensen et al. reinforce many of these concepts about caring for exhausted colleagues. When we act with intention to care for each other, our patients, ourselves, and our communities, healing becomes possible.

I find myself avoiding the news for fear of what will happen next. Instead, I focus on what I can control. Some days look like finding time to go for a walk or taking two minutes to catch up with a friend. Every day I make it a point to verbally ask how my colleagues are doing. I write notes to encourage leaders to follow through. I write letters to my representatives.

I talk to my kids about what’s going on so they know it’s okay to talk about our feelings. Each of us has a choice to use our voices and platforms to advocate for changes that protect our caregivers. Our whole lives depend on it.

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