Posted on 18 March 2022

Long before the pandemic, healthcare professionals often accepted that extra hours were another occupational hazard they take on – a vital facet in a field where there can be chaos and unpredictable situations unfolding at the end of a shift. With coronavirus though, pharmacists staying open later, doctors seeing more patients and ICU nurses helping patients through the night will of put in more than their fair share of hours. Many times, individuals are drawn to these roles because of their compassion for others and will to make change in a positive way and empower people with their health. When, though, does putting in hours above and beyond and little holiday or breaks begin to take its toll? When does working constantly begin to impede the services these professionals can provide and signal an alarm that rest and recuperation is needed?

It’s well known that stress accumulates over times when we perhaps have particularly poor sleep, not enough time to rest, as well as high demands in the work place. For those front-line workers, there is likely to be a combination of all of these, including a large dose of seriousness surrounding the current situation with the coronavirus pandemic. With an accumulation of stress, those workers may have found their emotional resilience, reasoning, quick thinking and other cognitive skills may have faltered at different times as they suffer emotional and physical exhaustion. 

In these circumstances, the irony is that for the committed worker, they want to push through this period by working more and devoting their energy to those who need it most. Paradoxically, though the support worker, nurse or surgeon would always say the patient comes first, the person looking after said patient is also extremely important. The clinician or healthcare worker can only work and care as well as they are personally able, and rest and ample mental and physical energy is a fundamental part of this. For the manager, allowing worker time off and the odd early finish here and there could make all the difference to the resilience of the team and the level of care they can give. What’s more, combined stress over time inhibits sleep, poor sleep inhibits cognitive skills and performance at work, creating more stress, which increased blood pressure and causes poor sleep… can you see the cycle here?

Here are just some of the benefits taking a break, a couple days out, or a weeks annual leave can have on your capacity to cope and your work performance;

  • Distance – holidays remove individuals from the activities and environments which have caused them stress, so time away from this can put some mental distance between the individual and the situation

  • Health – reducing stress by proxy of having a break will improve your sleep, reduce stress hormones like adrenaline and cortisol, and improve your cardiovascular health and blood pressure. With more time off, individuals also have time for physical activity and better nutrition. 

  • Energised – individuals return to the work place with a hunger to perform well, mental clarity and their full range of mental facilities to do a good job, reach their targets and support patients fully

For many employees in different lines of work, there has been a much greater sense of work-life balance during the pandemic because of flexible and home working. However, for healthcare workers who are required to be in practice or in their clinics, the sense of flexibility and a good work balance is often absent. This is why it is even more important that these individuals work as required, but where possible reduce presenteeism and give themselves adequate time off. It is natural to want to work as much as possible to help patients and support your team, but it is worth ruminating on the phrase ‘the care you give can only be as good as the energy you have or the rest you’ve taken’.  

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