These professionals take care of us when we are at our most vulnerable, and they witness tremendous suffering and intense emotions. Because they routinely face these situations while working often lengthy shifts, it can take a serious toll on their own health.
In this post, we review some of the most common health issues front line medical staff face as a result of their important work helping others, and conclude with some tips for how they can stay as healthy as possible given these difficult circumstances.
Many studies have found that job-related stress is the most pervasive type of stress we encounter in our society, and its intensity has only increased over the past few decades. Stress is an extremely personalized phenomenon and varies widely even in identical situations – but generally workplace stress increases when there is a perception of having many demands but little control.
Some sources of work-related stress especially relevant to front line staff include: workload, pace and variety; shiftwork or irregular hours of work; threat of violence or harassment; work-life balance and family being exposed to work-related hazards.
Increased work-related stress has been found to be associated with higher rates of hypertension, heart attacks, depression, anxiety, adrenal fatigue and other conditions.
Depression is a mood disorder which results in persistent and prolonged feelings of disinterest, emptiness, loss, and despair. Symptoms include: poor concentration or decision-making ability; feeling alone and misunderstood by others; feelings of guilt, worthlessness, helplessness or hopelessness; loss of interest in previously pleasurable activities; changes in weight or appetite; sleep disturbances; fatigue; and thoughts of death.
Although the exact cause of depression is unknown, factors including biology, changes in brain chemistry and/or hormones, and sometimes inherited physical traits can contribute to depression, as can particular environmental situations.
Much like depression, anxiety disorders are thought to be caused by a combination of biological and environmental factors. Generalized anxiety disorders, panic disorders, obsessive compulsive disorders, phobias, and post-traumatic stress disorders are the most common anxiety-related illnesses.
While symptoms vary, most anxiety disorders include a degree of irrational, excessive fear or dread. Other common symptoms include: intense panic attacks; obsessive thoughts; trembling, nausea, unexplained perspiration, and difficulty speaking; fatigue, irritability, headaches and muscle aches; and painful, intrusive thoughts.
PTSD and Compassion Fatigue
Post-traumatic stress disorder can occur following exposure to a trauma such as a death or a threat to one's life or personal security. Common symptoms include: re-experiencing the event through flashbacks, nightmares, or sudden thoughts; avoiding things that are reminders of the event; feeling nervous, on-edge, irritable, and/or numb; changes in thoughts or moods; and having difficulty sleeping or concentrating.
Moreover, medical professionals who help traumatized patients may develop their own indirect form of PTSD. Sometimes called compassion fatigue, this form of PTSD is thought be transmitted through deep psychological processes relating to unconscious empathy. Caregivers who develop compassion fatigue may experience: feelings of disassociation, powerlessness, and anger; problems sleeping and nightmares; physical symptoms similar to what their patients describe; headaches, dizziness, fainting spells, general body constriction and nausea.
While not all traumatic experiences necessarily lead to PTSD, repeated exposure to traumas or the length of exposure may contribute to developing PTSD; this explains why certain occupations, including front line medical personnel, are more likely to have a PTSD diagnosis in their lifetime.
Acknowledging this reality, the Ontario government recently passed legislation that creates a presumption that a PTSD diagnosis in first responders is work-related. Although this allows faster access to benefits for police, firefighters, paramedics, and others, the presumption established in Bill 163, Supporting Ontario's First Responders Act, does not include nurses, doctors and other front line hospital staff among first responders.
Tips to Combatting Burnout Syndrome
Although medical front line professionals may not have much control over what situations and traumas they encounter in their workplaces day to day, experts suggest it is necessary to find ways to get these daily stresses out of their systems in healthy ways. Physical exercise, meditation and/or deep breathing, and mood-boosting recreational activities are some of the ways process stress.
Most importantly, if front line medical personnel begin to experience symptoms related to one of these common health issues, they should not hesitate to consult professional help through counselling services. If they are diagnosed with a condition that affects their ability to work, these medical personnel should know there are legal protections available to them under Ontario's Human Rights Code, including a duty for employers and unions to accommodate people with psychosocial disabilities.
Caring for other people, especially when these people are experiencing acute traumas, can be emotionally and physically draining. It's essential for caregivers such as front line medical personnel to monitor their own well-being, recognize problematic signs and symptoms, and know that there are medical and legal avenues to protect themselves and their health.
The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.