The health of our health care workers needs attention

They deal with an enormous amount of mental and physical stress

MOST PEOPLE want to help during a medical emergency. But not everyone has the ability to calm their breathing, steel their nerves, set aside their emotions, and focus on the crisis at hand. Very few people can truly understand what it takes to save another person’s life.

Healthcare workers do.

Doctors, nurses, ER staff, and all of Boston’s world-class medical personnel serve and save while bearing witness to the fragility of life daily. They quickly absorb, filter out, and react to the most tragic and visceral scenes imaginable. And they do it on repeat, because there will always be another car accident, another shooting, another tragic childhood illness.

Healthcare providers deal with an enormous amount of mental and physical stress throughout their career. They carry this burden silently. Experiences and images stay rooted in the mind and take a toll. Trouble sleeping, appetite changes, emotional numbness, and physical exhaustion are baseline.

Overall, compared to the general population, emergency responders experience higher rates of depression, post-traumatic stress, burnout, anxiety, and other mental health issues. Healthcare workers, like all first responders, have devoted their lives to helping others but too often they forget to help themselves. For example, about 68 percent of nurses have reported that they put the health, safety, and wellness of their patients before their own needs. And it is well documented that emotional stress, burnout, and post-traumatic stress are becoming increasingly common amongst all healthcare personnel. Unfortunately, this also means suicide rates are also climbing. The industry itself suffers as healthcare worker retention issues impact already strapped hospital systems.

Recent years have only seen stressors multiply and evolve, precipitating an urgent need to put more focus on the health of our healthcare workers. While Boston’s healthcare community is the most advanced in the world, utilizing the best technology and most innovative procedures, none of it would be possible without the human element.

Myriad resources and organizations exist to improve coping and recovery, enhance morale, decrease stress, and reduce emotional distress. For administrators and agency heads, it is never too late to institute initiatives and trainings, such as Massachusetts-based organization O2X for Human Performance or the American Nurses Association’s Healthy Nurse Healthy Nation program, into their healthcare culture. Or even more simply, get your staff out of the hospital for meetings, provide hydration and healthy snacks, and relaxation rooms to support the culture of wellness.

People are more likely to take action with healthy behaviors when it’s knit into the department’s culture, starting at the top. We also know organizations that collaborate in healthy endeavors build a sense of community, belonging and resilience.

Awareness of healthcare worker wellness is growing, as are opportunities within Boston’s healthcare environment. From September 26 to 28, O2X will be holding human performance training for healthcare workers at a hospital in Boston. Supported by FirstNet, the nationwide communications network built with AT&T that established its own first responder health and wellness coalition, O2X will utilize a variety of tactics focused on nutrition, resilience, mental performance, fatigue management, mitigating stressors, and more. Sustainable lifestyle improvements can enhance occupational performance, increase career longevity and support the lifesaving care that these heroes provide.

While large-scale innovative approaches and cross-industry collaboration like this are key to organizational change, personal changes are equally important. Prioritize exercise, download wellness apps, utilize breathing techniques and meditation. Nurses practicing mindfulness have reported a 28 percent decrease in stress levels, which results in an estimated 62 minutes of increased productivity.

September is National Suicide Prevention Awareness Month, an opportunity to highlight first responder mental health. We challenge Boston’s healthcare community, at every level, to take action and amplify awareness. The city again has an opportunity to be an industry leader by prioritizing the health of our healthcare workers. They save lives every day. It’s about time we do the same for them.

Dr. Anna Courie is a former nurse, a nationally renowned expert on first responder health and wellness, and the director of responder wellness for the FirstNet Program at AT&T. Adam La Reau is a former lieutenant commander in the United States Navy and co-founder of the Massachusetts-based O2X Human Performance.