The healthcare workplace is changing—and in real time.
A movement toward hybrid offices, work flexibility, and virtual technologies could be positive changes that remain after COVID. But adapting to a new type of workplace can also raise anxiety, create space skirmishes, and impact the office culture.
A recent meeting of the EYP Healthcare Workplace Consortium, moderated by Leigh Stringer, managing principal, EYP DC, focused on evidence-based techniques for reducing stress and anxiety.
Maryanna Klatt, PhD, director of integrative medicine, professor of clinical family medicine, and researcher at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center, as well as a yogi, is an expert on the benefits of teaching mindfulness and meditation to healthcare workers.
Klatt’s research has shown that nurses working in a surgical ICU reduced their stress by 40% after an eight-week mindfulness program, as measured by levels of salivary [alpha]-amylase, which indicate sympathetic activation of the nervous system—also known as the fight or flight response. “What changed wasn’t the stress, it was their reaction to the stress,” Klatt says.
It’s important for hospitals and other healthcare workplaces to embrace such initiatives, not just individual workers. “You need the structure and the system to change,” says Klatt, whose TEDx Columbus talk gives more details.
The Attention Muscle
“Mindfulness is a quality of being in which you experience the present moment—the great stuff and the hard stuff,” Klatt said to consortium members over Zoom. “We’re all focused either on the past or the future. But our bodies are always in the present.”
So much of the practice of mindfulness starts with body work, she says. Meditation cultivates mindfulness, allowing you to be in the here and now more often. “You wouldn’t expect to play a sport without practicing it in an intentional way. That’s the relationship between mindfulness and meditation, so your muscle of attention can be there in every moment.”
The goal is not to zone out, but to pay attention to what is going through your mind, to notice what you’re thinking about. “If you never notice it, you never deal with it,” Klatt says.
“When walking, walk. When eating, eat.”–Zen Proverb
Klatt’s recent focus has been on reducing burnout and increasing resilience in healthcare workers, teaching them techniques such as yoga, gentle stretching, and relaxing to music.
“Ways to meditate may surprise you,” she said. “For example, while sitting in your desk chair, you can go through a body scan, noticing different places and what the sensations are. Or you can develop a mindful eating practice, where you break eating down and do it very slowly, noticing the textures and sensations. You end up enjoying the food a lot more.
“Be focused on what you’re doing while you’re doing it.”
Multitasking and Other Myths
Multitasking is actually “task switching,” which takes its toll on your mind, Klatt says. “There is a hidden cost. Your brain can become exhausted if you are switching between complex tasks. You actually waste time and increase errors.”
And mindfulness isn’t “positive thinking” or even controlling your mind/thoughts so that they are more positive. “It is simply noticing what your thoughts and emotions are,” she says.
Control, Klatt says, has always been an illusion. “COVID unearthed that we are not in control, that things can switch on a dime. If we’re aware of what’s going on and our reactions to what is going on, that is the thing that can give us back some control: awareness.”
Become aware of what you value, what you consider stressful, and your thought patterns. Invite flexibility in body and mind. Try going about things in different ways. “Cultivate a preemptive approach to resilience,” Klatt says
Breathing helps us get into recovery mode faster during stressful situations. Allow your mind, body, and breath to synchronize. Even a minute of focused breathing can evoke a sense of calm.
“We don’t like when we don’t have clarity,” says Klatt. “But we need to be aware of these moments of unease, instead of running away from them. Have compassion for yourself as you try to find firmer ground.
“Our work world is going to be different coming back from COVID. Mindfulness allows us to sit in that discomfort while remaining curious.”
Klatt’s mindfulness program is finding traction in the healthcare community. She has a grant from Thrive Global, an initiative by Arianna Huffington (founder of the Huffington Post), and matching funding from the Ohio State University to scale and disseminate Mindfulness in Motion. The Ohio Hospital Association’s pilot of three hospital systems across the state was recently completed, with participants showing a 56% reduction in burnout.
The EYP Healthcare Workplace Consortium: EYP gathered a group of design, facilities, and workplace professionals from a dozen different healthcare organizations for monthly roundtable conversations over the past year, moderated by Leigh Stringer, managing principal, EYP DC. The Consortium included representatives from MD Anderson, Stanford Health Care, The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center, St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, Memorial Sloan Kettering, UC Health, Northwell Health, Nemours, and others. Members shared the immediate challenges and complexities of navigating a changing healthcare workplace.