By now, “self-care” and “workplace wellness” aren’t novel concepts. It would be difficult not to find myriad references to both in the popular and professional press. Many organizations, including in the private sector, healthcare and government have embraced employee wellness programs, seeking to improve staff health, morale and productivity.
But could well-being – or lack thereof – in the workplace actually be a public health issue? The World Health Organization thinks it is, reporting in May 2019 that burnout is a “syndrome” that is the direct result of “chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed (World Health Organization 2019, Burn-out an “occupational phenomenon”: international classification of diseases. https://www.who.int/mental_health/evidence/burn-out/en/ Accessed June 12, 2019).” The implications of this are significant for the behavioral health workforce, which works to address both the ongoing needs and emergent crises of some of the most vulnerable populations in New York State and is subject to significant workplace stress.
Workplace stress can be understood as harmful physical and emotional responses that occur when the requirements of the job do not match the capabilities, resources, or needs of the employee (National Institutes of Safety and Health 2007, Workplace Stress. https://blogs.cdc.gov/niosh-science-blog/2007/12/03/stress/ Accessed June 12, 2019). But what makes working in behavioral health stressful? While clinical practice, direct care and program administration all provide their share of stressors, many people in our sector would point to persistent systemic and organizational factors that induce or exacerbate workplace stress. These are numerous, but some of the most significant include: (1)Heavy workloads or caseloads with demanding documentation requirements; (2) Inadequate funding, leading to staff shortages and salaries that do not meet the cost of living; (3) More work than can be accomplished during a regular shift or work day; (4) Not having adequate supervision to support best practices and to address the effects of regular exposure to learning about the traumatic experiences of those we serve.
So, what can behavioral health organizations do to promote wellness for its workforce?
Workplace wellness, while often conceptualized as something individual employees engage in on their own, starts with an organization’s commitment to creating a culture in which staff feel respected, engaged, and supported so that they can provide high quality services to consumers. There are many ways to develop an organizational culture of wellness. Some examples of steps that organizations can take to foster employee well-being include:
Create a Listening Environment: Have regular staff meetings; Ensure staff have consistent supervision time to discuss their work; Engage staff in conversations about their work and organizational operations and put their suggestions into practice, wherever possible.
Foster a Culture of Acknowledgement: Celebrate staff successes–and not just the large ones; Reward excellent performance; and Explicitly recognize how central staff are to achieving organizational goals.
Encourage Movement: Create and promote opportunities for exercise, such as group lunchtime walks; Engage local resources, like gyms or health clubs, to provide reduced memberships for staff; and Organize lunch-and-learn sessions to teach chair yoga, stretching, and breathing exercises that can be done at work.
Ensure a Healthy Workspace: Find ways to reduce environmental stressors, such as noise pollution, inadequate or harsh lighting, and outdated equipment that is difficult to operate; Develop a workplace safety plan to help staff defuse consumer crises and address emergencies that threaten to disrupt program operations – and make sure that everyone knows how to enact those plans; and Promote existing resources to which employees can turn for help when dealing with emotional distress, and encourage staff to use them where indicated.
And what can we in the behavioral health workforce do to take care of ourselves while we’re at work?
First, it’s important for us to acknowledge that taking care of ourselves is critically important when the primary focus of our job is to care for others. While some of the workplace stressors we experience are common across various sectors – tight deadlines, for instance – the behavioral health workforce experiences unique stressors that arise from providing care for, among others, those who have experienced psychological trauma or are recovering from serious mental illness. Self-care is not a “nice extra” for behavioral health professionals; it is an essential skill that we need to leverage for our own health so that we can continue to do our work well and with satisfaction.
Second, we need to understand our own unique responses to workplace stress to address it. We should pay attention to how we are feeling physically, emotionally, and mentally so that we can gauge when stress is taking more than a usual toll. For example, we might notice that stress causes us to feel more anxious, have difficulty concentrating, remembering things and getting our work done. We might find ourselves coping in ways that feel good in the short-term, but that have a long-term negative impact on our health, such as eating too much, sleeping too much, or using or overusing alcohol, drugs and cigarettes. We might find ourselves isolating from others, neglecting our responsibilities and not participating the activities we normally enjoy.
In recognition of the impact of workplace stress, particularly on those whose work is primarily to serve others, Vibrant Emotional Health developed a toolkit called Staying in Balance: Healthy Solutions for Managing Workplace Stress. This toolkit is a free, downloadable resource that can be found at https://www.vibrant.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/10/Vibrant_Toolkit_Staying-in-Balance.pdf. It provides resources for organizations to encourage a culture of wellness, and also provides tools that staff members can use to support their self-care.
Two key resources available in the toolkit include: 1) a self-care assessment to identify how well we are taking care of ourselves and where we might choose to increase our self-care activities; and 2) a personalized self-care action plan that helps us identify what we can commit to doing daily, weekly, monthly or as needed to support our own well-being. In addition, a module is devoted to helping supervisors and other organizational leadership understand the elements of establishing a culture of well-being at work, including: 1) key questions to ask when assessing organizational stress; 2) tips for identifying solutions to mitigate the impact of stress; and 3) determining if the implemented solutions are working as intended.
Workplace stressors will always exist. Even in “good times,” the behavioral health workforce is often understaffed and overburdened; in less than good times, the workforce faces demands to do ever more with increasingly less. While the vagaries of budget cycles will continuously impact our sector, we still have opportunities to foster wellness at work. Organizational commitment to employee well-being, coupled with supporting staff in their own self-care efforts, is essential to the continued welfare of our workforce. We know we are capable of innovation and implementing creative solutions to meet challenges; our commitment to our work compels us to make workforce well-being a cornerstone of our sector.