The COVID-19 pandemic brought the mental health crisis in America, particularly among healthcare workers, to the forefront of societal consciousness. According to a Washington Post/Kaiser Family Foundation survey in 2021, 55 percent of frontline healthcare workers experienced burnout. More than 60 percent of all healthcare workers reported they had experienced mental health repercussions from their work.
Kathleen Flarity, DNP, PhD, CEN, CFRN, FAEN, FAAN, Deputy Director of the Center for COMBAT Research at the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus, presented the tools and strategies she employs to confront these professional hazards and maintain her occupational passion in the ARP Keynote: Practice in Passion. The session is available for on-demand viewing for registered ACR Convergence participants through October 31, 2023, on the virtual meeting website.
Dr. Flarity, a brigadier general in the U.S. Air Force, has more than 41 years of military service, including multiple deployments and commands as a nurse practitioner and emergency and critical care flight nurse.
“We were not taught that you have feelings, that we take this stuff home with us,” Dr. Flarity said.
Instead, Western healthcare culture is defined by stress, she said. Fiscal and resource constraints are near-universal stressors for institutions. Dr. Flarity also cited “techno-stress,” which evidence shows has begun to rewire human brains to become less adept at human connection and interaction. These factors cause providers to be in a constant state of partial attention and continuous stress.
“We are the most expensive healthcare in the world, but not the best,” Dr. Flarity said.
Compassion fatigue and secondary post-traumatic stress often lead to stress injuries for healthcare providers. While these injuries are common, treatable, and reversible, it’s often challenging for people to be vulnerable with their feelings. Dr. Flarity explained that she, like many others, was taught to remain stoic and objective in her work. She recalled that one of her best friends was sent home after seeking help for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). These experiences caused Dr. Flarity to redefine her perception of success, which had previously centered around traditional Western values like wealth and occupational standing.
“Now, my personal well-being is in my definition of success,” Dr. Flarity said. “If I do things that nourish me, I’m going to make a better leader, spouse, and provider.”
The human body often can’t tell the difference between real and perceived threats. When confronted with a stressful situation, people experience a surge of adrenaline that’s often accompanied by a decrease in fine motor skills, frontal lobe activity, and speech. According to Dr. Flarity, healthcare workers deal with these stress-induced surges 20–30 times per day.
She advised the audience to spend the next three weeks focusing on their own triggers of stress. When these triggers are identified, self-regulation strategies can be implemented, such as exercise, brief meditation sessions, or making a concerted effort to activate a positive feeling of gratitude and appreciation.
Dr. Flarity also emphasized the importance of building a safe network of people with whom one can be vulnerable and honest. Personal connections are vital to rejuvenating compassion satisfaction, or the joy, purpose, and meaning one derives from doing work well.
“I do things that nourish me, and I’m better for it, and my patients are better for it,” Dr. Flarity said.