For most health professionals, celebrating Heart Health Month in February means raising awareness among patients and families about cardiovascular disease. But it’s also an excellent time to reflect on how the nature of your work affects your own ticker. (Just think about your stress levels, all those break room snacks, and how many days you’re too tired to hit the gym…)
We know that sustained, professional burnout can lead to heart problems, and when compared to the general population, nurses have higher rates of depression, which increases risk of heart disease. What’s more, a 2016 study found up to 78 percent of hospital workers are overweight or obese.
And here’s another harsh truth: Clinicians who don’t take care of their own health can’t effectively treat their patients. So, for Heart Month, follow these strategies to protect your own heart, too.
Pay attention to your risk factors.
Cara Lunsford, RN, founder and CEO of Holliblu, an app helping nurses achieve work-life balance, reiterates the occupational, heart hazards of working in healthcare.
“Grabbing a quick snack of Jello or graham crackers from the snack cupboard when there’s no time for a break, or working three night shifts in a row and then driving straight to your child’s soccer game so you don’t have to miss another important event are just a couple of examples,” she tells Florence Health. “Extreme fatigue means no energy for cooking healthy dinners … Poor diet and lack of sleep are just two of many risk factors.”
Lunsford adds that the emotional stress of the job, especially the “heartbreaking grief,” can have “an unquantifiable effect on [the] heart that’s equally important to mention.”
Push for industry-wide change.
Yes, you can and should commit to making better lifestyle choices, you should also recognize that the healthcare industry puts its workers in a challenging position — and that needs to change, too, Lunsford says.
In addition to “finding ways to care for themselves,” health professionals should “expect expect the industry to provide the proper resources so we can do better self-care,” she explains.
Some ways to get involved? Join — or start — a wellness group at your facility. Organize a wellness (not just weight-loss!) challenge. Talk to human resources about building a fitness center or paying for passes to a local gym. Work with union reps or administrators to bring the needs of healthcare professionals into focus.
Take small steps.
If you struggle to find time to focus on your own health, Lunsford recommends starting with small steps. Literally.
“One easy thing you can do at work to help improve your cardiac health is taking the stairs whenever possible,” she says. “When I was experiencing an especially hard day on the floor, I would take five minutes to run up and down two flights of stairs a couple of times during a 12-hour shift. It was great cardio and much-needed stress relief.”
Bringing heart-healthy snacks to work are another small but promising start, Lunsford advises. For example, stash a low-sugar protein bar or celery and peanut butter close by. (No more reaching for those handy candy dishes or stopping by the break room for free pizza and donuts!)
Make mental health a priority.
So often, we focus on physical health, especially in healthcare, where we rely on lab results and measurable outcomes. But Lunsford reminds health professionals that emotional and mental health are just as crucial to protecting one’s heart.
If you’re struggling with issues like PTSD or compassion fatigue, talk to your provider. And for everyday upkeep, try meditation and breath work, which have been shown to reduce stress levels and even restore a sense of wellbeing.
As an added bonus, when you focus on your mental health, your physical health often follows because you have the energy to go to the gym, prepare nutritious meals and more.