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How to deal with tragedy and sadness as a healthcare worker
As a healthcare professional you’re there for your patients throughout their life – from birth right through to their last moments. While this is an immense privilege it can also cause deep personal sadness for you and your teammates. The crisis our country faces with Covid 19 means that end of life patients may not get to say goodbye to their loved ones, you may be caring for many more dying patients than usual, and tragically, colleagues may even be suffering or losing their lives as well. Life as a healthcare worker has not been so challenging – or so critically important – in recent history.
So how do you get through the tough times while still remaining positive and able to care for patients and their families?
If your reserves are running low then it won’t take much to make a difficult day seem like the end of the world. Just like how on an aeroplane you’re advised to put your own oxygen mask on first, taking care of yourself is actually the first step to taking care of your patients. Do you spend time on things you really love each week, whether that’s taking a walk out in nature, watching your favourite old movies or working on a hobby? Are you taking annual leave at regular intervals? Don’t forget, the beauty of agency work is that you can work when you want, a healthy work life balance is vital.
Seeking the right support, in your personal as well as your professional life, is essential. Make time to offload about your sadness to a close friend or family member – the fact that they’re removed from the situation means they can simply be there to lend an ear and a shoulder to cry on. But make sure you talk to your colleagues and team leader as well. A formal debrief can be really helpful after a difficult event, as well as more informal chats after a challenging shift. Your teammates have experienced exactly the same trauma so they really do get it.
As healthcare professionals self reflection is part of your daily practice, but at times you might benefit from a more formal approach. Use a model such as Gibbs’ Reflective Cycle, jot down some notes and really dig deep into what went well – and what could have gone better. This helps both your professional practice and with your personal feelings about the tragedy. Your reflections can also be used towards revalidation, if applicable.
Allow yourself to feel sad…
Acknowledge that your feelings are valid. Pushing your emotions away might seem like a good way to get through the day but eventually you need to face the sadness you’re dealing with head on. Every loss of life is a tragedy and taking a moment to respect this can help to draw a line under the events of the day, and allow you to move on. Raise a glass, have a cry, and remember that it’s your compassion and empathy for your patients and their loved ones that make you so good at what you do.
…But don’t forget to focus on what went well!
From the big stuff – having the right anticipatory medications in place for your end of life patient, or ensuring they get to their preferred place of death – to the seemingly small – a cup of tea and kind word for a loved one, gentle personal care, or simply a caring hand to hold. The things that went well will sustain you throughout your sadness. Being with a person in the last moments of their life is one of the biggest privileges you will experience as a healthcare professional, as is caring for them after their death, and supporting their loved ones throughout.
Never underestimate the positive impact you’ve made in such a difficult time.