As healthcare workers we are always advised to be vigilant to the possibility of mental health problems in our patients. In contrast, we are often not very good at recognising the symptoms and signs in ourselves or our co-workers, and even when we do; there is often a reluctance to admit to them, and even greater opposition to actually addressing them.
Yet with 45 million days a year lost due to work-related stress and the term “burnout” now in common lexicon, the World Health Organisation predicts that it will be among the most prevalent diseases worldwide by 2020.
The worse end of this scale is work-related suicide, and although the UK does not yet have a register that classifies for this, care workers are twice as likely to attempt self-harm compared to those in other industries.
When examining the personalities of doctors, nurses and other allied professionals, a group of intelligent, highly motivated individuals with a genuine belief in their work can be seen. We have invested heavily from an early age, and work is often a vocation as much as a means of paying the bills. Advances in technology mean what we are able to offer our patients, as well as their expectations, are forever increasing. We are often unable to say no, due to a strong desire to help, as well as a feeling that the work may simply end up with our colleagues. Yet the number of hours in the day remains the same, so we work for longer, potentially sacrificing our own health as well as home life and relationships.
Burnout does not tend to occur spontaneously, instead developing insidiously, often after months and sometimes years of overwork. It can be recognised by tiredness and irritability. Often there is a reluctance to engage with positive change or struggling to understand new concepts. “Compassion fatigue” is where incidents which should prompt emotion, for example human suffering, fail to elicit a response, even internally. Sufferers of burnout often drag themselves from one day to the next, sometimes using alcohol, prescription drugs and even recreational substances to make the experience bearable.
While this sounds bleak, attitudes towards stress in the work place are improving, with the recognition that a happy workforce is a productive workforce, and the realisation that well-adjusted individuals make better decisions. Although the healthcare workplace will always be a busy environment, the onus is on individuals as well as employers to recognise and address the issues. From a practical point, taking regular exercise, a good diet and decent sleep patterns are habits that will hopefully set you up for a lifetime. Often control even over a few small aspects of life is enough to promote emotional wellbeing.
If you find that despite this you are worn out, or you feel your practice is unsafe, it is vital to address this with your line manager. Coming to them with practical solutions to the issues faced is often looked upon favourably, and it is always worth addressing a problem before it spirals out of control. We owe it to ourselves as much as our patients to take good care of our own physical and mental health.
“A happy workforce is a productive workforce……..well-adjusted individuals make better decisions”