In order to avoid distress, exhaustion and burnout, healthcare workers need to be aware of their risk of occupational stress and manage it accordingly.
According to a recent Cochrane review, occupational stress can be the result of numerous ‘stress exposure’ factors including organizational pressures, increasing workload, patient demands, emotional responses (healthcare is an emotionally-connected profession), professional skill development, social pressures or lack of support.
The effects of work-related stress can develop gradually and may remain unnoticed for long lengths of time. The condition is made worse because of inadequate coping, which is why integrating regular interventions into life is important.
Symptoms of Occupational Stress
Symptoms of stress include:
- Decreased level of job satisfaction
- Persistent negative state of mind
- Fatigue and exhaustion
- A sense of reduced effectiveness
- Decreased motivation
- Negative attitudes and behaviors
- Anxiety and depression
Preventing Occupational Stress in Healthcare
The goal of stress management is to improve coping skills, knowledge, attitudes, work performance and job satisfaction.
According to the Cochrane review, occupational stress can be addressed from two aspects:
On a personal level, work-related stress issues can be addressed effectively through cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), and mental and physical relaxation techniques.
On an organizational level, these practices should be supported in healthcare workers. And further to this, organizations can change factors such as structure or culture, which has a positive overflow to employees.
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy
CBT helps provide new ways of thinking, feeling and doing things by bringing awareness to thoughts and behaviors, and enabling people to reframe stressful situations for more effective coping.
Compared to control groups, CBT reduces stress levels by approximately 13%. CBT combined with relaxation techniques increases stress reduction even further, particularly for anxiety type symptoms.
Mental and Physical Relaxation
Relaxation techniques help channel energy and attention away from the negative into the positive. These stimulate a state of calmness and help counteract stress.
The results of the Cochrane review show a comparable effect for both physical and mental relaxation.
Mental and physical relaxation techniques include, but are not limited to:
- Massage therapy – even for just 10-minutes
- Foot massage
- Tai Chi
- Nature walks
- Stretch release relaxation
- Mindfulness meditation
- Breathing exercises
The Cochrane review does note that much of the research available is considered low-medium quality evidence, particularly for CBT, with slightly stronger evidence for relaxation techniques. Therefore the authors recommend more quality studies be conducted.
Surprisingly, out of the few studies reviewed for organizational factors, none showed a benefit on stress-related outcomes. According to the review, this includes factors such as “improving work conditions, organizing support or organizing special care models,” which many organizations may consider effective.
Hard conclusions cannot be drawn from this due to lack of research available.
Still, for both CBT and relaxation there is a modest effect of 13%, which is considered significant.
If you’re suffering from any of the symptoms of occupational stress, engaging in regular relaxation appears to be the easiest, and best option for increasing coping skills.