It’s estimated that up to 400 physicians in the United States take their lives each year. In addition, results from a study conducted by the American Journal of Nursing concluded that nurses are at higher risk of suicidal ideation than the general working population.
Once a taboo subject, particularly among health care workers, mental well-being is increasingly becoming less stigmatized, more openly discussed, and, perhaps more importantly, better supported by employers in the field.
Recognizing the symptoms of depression
"We talk about burnout a lot, but burnout is only one end result," explained Jorge Del Toro, M.D., MBA, FAAP, FCCP, CPE, vice president of medical affairs at Pediatrix® Medical Group. "There are several warning signs of distress that are important to recognize in ourselves and our colleagues, especially because in the early stages, some of the feelings and behaviors associated with overwork, stress, fatigue and depression, can seem similar, and if not properly addressed, become worse over time."
When you are suffering, you may experience varying degrees of:
- Feelings of sadness.
- Lack of concentration.
- Forgetfulness or difficulty remembering.
- Difficulty making decisions.
- Feelings of worthlessness or guilt, irritability, anger or fearfulness.
- Sleeping difficulties or the need to get too much sleep.
- Weight or appetite changes.
If a co-worker is distressed, you may notice that he or she:
- Appears withdrawn from the team or purposely isolates themselves.
- Seems scattered or absentminded.
- Is unsure of their abilities or lacks confidence.
- Misses deadlines.
- Seems indecisive or not as productive as normal.
- Arrives late to work or exhibits afternoon fatigue.
- Appears indifferent.
- Has inappropriate reactions to co-workers.
- Doesn’t look the same.
The COVID connection
While clinicians and frontline health care professionals nationwide reported feeling stressed, overwhelmed, depressed and burned out before the COVID-19 outbreak, experts say the pandemic exasperated these issues.
“The COVID crisis has not been helpful for people already battling depression,” explained Noel R. Baril, vice president of Pediatrix’s Total Rewards program, part of the People Services department. “The virus became an additional stressor and disruptor that impacted people’s amount of social contact. For many, the pandemic has had a detrimental impact on mental health, which can affect workplace performance.”
However, seeking help has become less stigmatized during the last decade as our society has placed more value on work-life balance, self-care and taking “me time.”
“We now know that it’s OK not to be OK,” said Dr. Del Toro. “It’s not a cliché. As physicians, we need to recognize that we’re going through a unique time in history. A lot of factors are impacting our personal and professional lives, but there is help.”
Finding solutions and support
“Mitigating burnout is a complex issue with multiple spokes,” Dr. Del Toro said. “Many health care professionals feel they can’t be truthful about their feelings. They don’t feel safe disclosing that they’ve received mental health services.”
In response, Pediatrix is committed to creating a culture where vulnerability is embraced, and compassion is the norm. Dr. Del Toro and Brian Rosenberg, Ph.D., director of training and development for Pediatrix, recently created Health of the Clinical Workforce, an internal resource packed with evidence-based resources that clinical staff and leaders can review and put into practice.
“It’s a curated one-stop shop,” Dr. Del Toro explained. “It includes vetted resources from partner organizations that address professional fulfillment, resiliency, self-care, mindfulness, grief, burnout and more. We designed it to be self-serve, so our clinical staff can easily get the guidance they need, but we also encourage them to reach out with any questions they have.”
Dr. Del Toro and Dr. Rosenberg, who has a background in psychology, can work with clinicians and other health care professionals to help diagnose the cause of stress and provide support through one-to-one or team coaching. Other ways to help a co-worker in need, according to Dr. Del Toro, include offering psychological first aid and encouraging struggling individuals to call a crisis hotline, such as the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (1-800-273-8255), a nationwide toll-free service that is staffed 24/7. In addition, Pediatrix provides both clinical and non-clinical staff with confidential, accessible and free mental health and counseling services through its employee benefits plans.
“We recognize that mental health is every bit as important as physical health to the well-being of our team,” Baril said. “As an organization, we’re always looking for ways to better support the mental health of every member of the Pedatrix team. We do this with programs available through Blue Cross, our medical insurance carrier, and by encouraging our team members to leverage their paid time off to recharge and refresh and, where appropriate, we offer flexible and remote work opportunities.”
Mental health services are also accessible through carefully selected third-party partners, such as HealthAdvocate, which administers our employee assistance program (EAP), and TelaDoc, a new benefit for 2022. Through the EAP, employees can receive confidential in-person or remote counseling and support for stress, depression, anxiety, relationship issues, caregiving issues and more. TelaDoc offers a robust suite of mental health services that are delivered remotely via chat or phone. Use of these services, according to Baril, is protected by the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA), providing a high level of confidentiality.
Another way Pediatrix supports employees is by ensuring a supportive, inclusive workplace through its ongoing focus on diversity, equity and inclusion.
State and national resources
Myriad resources are available beyond our walls as well. In Florida, where our corporate headquarters are located, Dr. Del Toro said state and county medical societies, such as the Florida Medical Association, often have links to mental health resources for physicians. Another option is inquiring about the services offered by the hospital where you work.
On a national level, the Dr. Lorna Breen Health Care Provider Protection Act directs the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to award grants to hospitals, medical professional associations and other health care organizations to fund programs that promote mental health and resiliency among current and future health care professionals.
Lorna Breen, M.D., was an emergency medicine physician from New York City who took her life in April 2020 after expressing frustration about being unable to save patients suffering from COVID-19. Through the Dr. Lorna Breen Heroes’ Foundation, her family, friends and colleagues turned the tragedy into an opportunity to successfully pressure Congress to improve health care professionals’ access to needed mental health services and support.
Under consideration are health-risk assessments for Pediatrix employees that may include questions to assess not just lifestyle and health issues but also stress, depression and other mental health markers, according to Baril. This will help ensure employees who are struggling get the services they need.
“We’re taking a holistic look at our team members’ health and well-being,” Baril explained. “People Services strives to help our team members be alert for the signs and symptoms of depression, stress, anxiety and burnout, so we can appropriately respond with benefit services and other support. It’s an ongoing process.”
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