Coping With High-Stress Jobs: These Four R's Can Help

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Dr. Larry Stevens Dr. Larry Stevens

Few workplaces put employees under more stress than hospitals, where success is gauged by the ultimate performance measure: keeping your customers healthy.

At IU Health Methodist Hospital we developed a course, called Sailing the High Seas, to help doctors and other frontline employees cope with stress and become better leaders and teammates. Over three years, close to 200 frontline employees have gone through the eight-month program, including physicians, pharmacists and nurses.

My interest in finding ways to help employees cope with stress grew out of my own daily battles with stress as an operating room surgeon.

As a younger surgeon, it was drilled into me that the white coats run the show in the operating room and patient outcomes depend largely on the surgeon’s technical skills. Talk about stress! Five years ago, however, after becoming operating room director in a hospital, I realized the reality was quite different.

Attempting to be the mythic hero who single-handedly carries the responsibility for success is a recipe for failure and burnout.

In the OR, a surgeon’s special knowledge and technical skills are necessary for optimal outcomes, but they aren’t sufficient. Learning to value and care for every team member regardless of title, degree, or seniority, is what really counts to achieve and sustain excellence.

These lessons about teamwork apply beyond healthcare in modern-day work settings that are increasingly VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous).

I’ve come to believe that whether it’s healthcare or other demanding professions, the best way to make sure frontline teams cope with stress and achieve is to make sure they receive plenty of support and care so they can perform more ably as teams.

I quickly noticed that good things happened when I began devoting more supervisory time caring for my OR teams. For instance: Being open to team members’ questions, even if they interrupt our daily schedules. Supporting team members’ desires for career development as well as finding ways to nurture their personal lives. Or having their backs when they take on risky assignments.

These learnings went into the development of our coping course at Methodist Hospital.

To frame the outline of the course we boiled down the teachings for handling stress to four R’s: Reason, Risk, Resilience and Relationships.

     • Reason is a person’s North Star: the purpose in your job and life and the core principles and mission that provide focus and motivation for your daily activities. For many healthcare workers, helping sick patients get well provides strong motivation to take on their stressful jobs. When times get tough, reminding yourself of the reasons for doing what you do is a proven coping skill. 

     • Risk is unavoidable in moving through life and career. We teach our team members that it’s natural to fear the unknown but they should realize that reward, recognition and achievement come from taking risk. Which makes it important to have supportive leaders and colleagues who support you in risky endeavors.

     • Resilience is the trait described in the Aesop fable of the oak and the willow. By being flexible and responsive to its environment, the willow bent with the gusts and survived. Employees today need to bend and adapt in order to thrive in workplaces that face technological change, global competition and other disruptions.

     • Finally, we stress the importance of relationships. For any size organization, it helps to impress upon employees that they are not solo actors, but part of a team pulling together. Relationships are the glue that keep people connected. Within an organization, small investments in caring for others provide huge dividends in the form of people’s loyalty, dedication and commitment to their jobs.

In the case of our Methodist course, teaching the four R’s has paid off. It’s not only helped our staff manage their work-life balance and deal with change but improved their value as team members. And that syncs nicely with our North Star reason for being: caring for patients.

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