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Who Takes Care of the Healthcare Carers?

Woman at work overwhelmed with head in hands

We walk into a healthcare facility, be it a hospital, primary care, or a specialised clinic, with complete trust that we will receive the best medical and nurturing from the carers while there.

Healthcare carers play a vital role in our well-being. So much so that the World Health Organization (WHO) declared the years 2006 to 2015 as “The decade of the human resources for health.”

It wasn’t until the COVID-19 pandemic showed up that we began to really understand just how demanding the frontline work is. The nurses, doctors, and the vast array of healthcare providers selflessly rose to the challenge (and continue to do so). Whether caring for the sick, ensuring vaccines reach the most vulnerable, testing and reporting cases or keeping routine healthcare services going, their efforts have been immense.

But who is taking care of the healthcare carers?

Who looks after their physical, emotional and psychological wellbeing? The simple answer is that they take care of themselves. However, the reality is that healthcare workers are often so busy taking care of others that they neglect their own health and wellbeing. And this can lead to burnout and early retirement.

We don’t get to see the pressure the staff are under. Often, healthcare organisations are so hierarchical that senior management, including doctors expect employees to blindly defer to them, often to the detriment of employee wellbeing. A key sign that all is not good is when communication flows only one way, as directives from the higher-ups come down to the employees.

Last month’s article What Team Culture Means looked at the impact good or bad team culture has on productivity. What I wrote also applies to those in the healthcare system as all parts of health operate in team environments. Toxicity can arise anywhere and is not always easy to spot. If an organisation has interpersonal or institutional problems that make it difficult to do the job, it can harm the worker’s health, consequently spilling over into the care given to the patients.

When an employee is afraid to ask questions or challenge a decision, that person is often singled out and bullied into toeing the line.

This is not a healthy or safe environment to work in.

Surveys of medical and health professionals find that over 50% of healthcare workers experience or display symptoms of burnout. Unmanageable workloads, unclear job boundaries, excessive time pressure, lack of support, bullying, favouritism and discrimination all play a role in a person’s ability to perform at their job.

Psychological safety is an integral part of healthcare. Within the teams, the individual carers working in this highly complex environment where the stakes are high need to know they will not be punished or humiliated when speaking up with their concerns.

Suppose you think of it this way. Patient health and outcomes depend on the skilful coordination of the medical team. The decision-making and discussions among the nurses, doctors and clinicians lead to the proper care for the patient. If the team environment is safe, members can freely express their ideas and thoughts.

Positive and open teamwork leads to better brainstorming, sharing of ideas and offering the best possibilities. Assessments can be discussed and acted upon without fear of reprisals. And genuine cooperation means better management of the real risks always present in healthcare.

When all is well within the system, job satisfaction is heightened. People feel valued and respected. The hierarchy becomes their colleagues, and the workplace energy is lighter. This is what true care looks like, for both the patients and the staff.


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