Anyone working in the health care field knows that stress is inevitably part of the job description. From working long hours (for some, through the night) to delivering bad news to a lack of work-life balance, the health care field presents a unique set of challenges for health care workers of all types, from neurosurgeons to non-clinical health care staff. As a result, burnout has become rampant in the field; in fact, Dr. Casey Mulqueen, director of learning and development (L&D) at TRACOM, says health care is one of the industries with the highest levels of burnout across the United States. Further, he says, “There’s a direct correlation between physician burnout and nurse burnout and quality of health care and medical care.” In addition to being costly for employers, burnout can also take a significant toll on health care workers’ physical and mental health

Building resilience in health care workers can help combat burnout by improving their ability to thrive in stressful situations and enhancing their physical, mental and emotional well-being.

What Is Resilience?

David Ogilvie, MIoD, FCMI, director of the Resilience Development Company, defines resilience as a “set of skills that [can] change habits, beliefs and behaviors to develop social, emotional and mental strength,” and the “ability to thrive despite setbacks and maintain well-being, relationships and work performance whilst under pressure.”

Although resilience training can’t eliminate many of the stressors that come with working in the health care field, it can help health care workers grow from that stress rather than shrink from it, says Dr. Gary Simonds, who is the co-author of several books on the topic and recently retired as chief of neurosurgery and residency program director at the Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine.

Resilience Training That Works

For a resilience training program to be successful, training professionals must first build a culture that values employee well-being. After all, “If nobody else is taking care of themselves, it’s really difficult to expect one individual to go against that current and be the one person in their workplace that takes care of themselves,” says Dr. Acacia Parks, chief science officer at Happify, a self-improvement website and application.

Fostering a culture that encourages employees to take care of themselves is especially critical in the health care field. Simonds says even taking a short break in the middle of a busy day is difficult for health care workers, because they “immediately start feeling guilty.” Because health care workers are so focused on helping others, training professionals should make it clear that it’s “OK to focus on oneself as well,” Simonds says. Even small activities such as quick walks, stress check-ins and mindfulness exercises can help normalize — and even encourage — self-care.

In addition to creating a culture that values employee well-being, taking a holistic approach to resilience training can improve its effectiveness. Ogilvie says that although many health and well-being initiatives focus on maintaining physical health, “Our ability to function, deliver and thrive depends on how we leverage our mental, emotional and social strength, so any program that wants to truly develop a more resilient workforce and culture needs to focus on all aspects of resilience, not just the physical ones.” Dr. Sven Hansen, founder of The Resilience Institute, says caregivers have to take care of their “emotions and mind” to provide quality care and listen to patients with empathy, which is difficult to do when they’re burnt out. However, for busy health care workers, this is easier said than done.

Mobile learning is one way to offer busy, overworked health care workers resilience training on the go. For example, Happify’s mobile-enabled “Beat Burnout and Build Resilience” track features meditation exercises, goal-setting initiatives and other quick activities that can build workers’ resilience, Parks says. Mobile-enabled resilience training can also provide stress relief on demand through activities such as breathing exercises. Happify’s resilience training pulls from the principles of cognitive behavioral therapy, which Parks says is about “not jumping to conclusions.” By tackling negative self-talk and thinking patterns, cognitive behavioral therapy-based practices can help health care workers remain positive and resilient in times of stress.

Cultivating positivity can also help build resilience and reduce stress. Ogilvie says organizations can build “positive emotion” by starting meetings with a recognition of the good things that happened over the past week. This approach “will get everyone thinking positively and [will] change the mood of the meeting,” he shares. He also suggests having health care workers ask themselves whether or not a certain stressor will matter in a week, a month or even a year down the road, which he calls the “fast forward skill.” By recognizing that a stressful situation won’t have a significant long-term impact, health care workers can better direct their “emotional and mental energy,” Ogilvie says.

Measuring Resilience

As resilience is dependent on a number of factors, such as sleep, mental and emotional health, and nutrition, measuring the effectiveness of resilience training can be a challenge. To do so successfully, Ogilvie says, “Measurement should focus on an outcome-based analysis that uses both qualitative and quantitative periodic measures that indicate long-term behavior change.” For example, the Resilience Development Company uses “validity tested tools” to measure stress, anxiety, burnout, productivity, psychological safety and self-efficacy, Ogilvie says.

Although the demands and stress associated with the health care field are unlikely to diminish any time soon, resilience training can offer health care workers the tools and strategies they need to thrive in the face of adversity. As a result, they will be less prone to burnout and better able to care for the patients they serve.