by Phil Sheppard, PT, DrPH (candidate)
Do you know when you’re sitting on a plane before take-off, the flight attendant goes through the safety briefing and says, “It’s important to put the mask on yourself first before helping anyone else”? They say this because if you are affected and unwell, it can influence your ability to help others. The same is true in disaster situations; we can only help others and excel if we are safe and healthy.
As a health care professional, you are likely experiencing a mix of emotions related to safety (for yourself, family, colleagues, staff, clients, and all Canadians), financial concerns, and the uncertainty surrounding the global COVID-19 pandemic. There is a general sense of unease in society; individuals are worried and stressed. This behaviour is common in situations like the one that we are presented with. There are strategies that you can use to maximize your well-being and ability to work in stressful environments.
The first thing to know is that it is OK to help yourself first. In fact, you MUST ensure that you are healthy, physically and mentally, so that you are able to help those around you and excel in stressful environments. In other words, ‘put your own mask on first.’ Here are some strategies that can help:
1. Talk About It! (It's OK!)
- If you are feeling stressed, reach out to family and friends or other physiotherapists and health care professionals to talk about what you are going through. It’s likely that they are having a similar experience and talking about it will help get it off your chest and can allow you to come up with possible solutions.
- If needed, connect with a mental health professional or hotline. Many facilities are offering telehealth options to connect with a professional remotely.
- For mental health resources related to COVID-19, see the Government of Canada COVID-19 and Mental Health website.
2. Maintain a Routine
- As a health care worker in times of uncertainty and high need, you can be confronted with an endless amount of work and an everchanging environment. It is important to maintain some normalcy to your life.
- Wake up and go to sleep at the same time every day.
- Schedule time that you are working and time off. This will allow you to rest and maximize your productivity while at work.
- Schedule regular physical activity, mindfulness activities, and time outside.
- As a physiotherapist, you know that exercise is important for physical and mental health, as well as productivity and stress reduction.
- Maintain a regular exercise program and healthy lifestyle.
- If your favourite activity has been affected because of shutdowns or self-isolation, take the opportunity to learn something new or take on a new challenge.
- Yoga is a great physical activity that you can do anywhere. There are several websites that offer video yoga classes, such as DoYogaWithMe or YouTube.
4. Meditation and Mindfulness
- Meditation and mindfulness have been shown to reduce stress and improve mental health of humanitarian workers.1
- There are several apps and websites that offer guided meditation.
- Headspace is offering free guided meditation for everyone right now and they have specific courses dedicated to health care professionals dealing with COVID-19.
- Incorporate mindfulness throughout your day.
- If you are confronted with a stressful situation or becoming overwhelmed, remove yourself from the situation (if possible) and focus on your breath.
5. Be Grateful (and Write It Down)
- In stressful times, it is easy to get caught up in thinking about all the negative things that are happening. But there is still a lot to be grateful for.
- Keep a gratitude journal and write down what you are grateful for in the morning and at night. (One example is the Five-Minute Journal.)
- In the morning, write:
- Three things I am grateful for.
- Three things that would make today great.
- At night, write:
- Three amazing things that happened today.
- How could I have made today better?
6. Maintain and Build Connections
- One of the most difficult things while working in stressful situations or while isolated is the lack of social connection.
- Schedule regular phone or video conversations with family and friends.
- Connect with online groups on topics that you are interested in, such as the CPA’s Slack group on COVID-19.
7. Focus on Your Goals
- Write down the goals that you want to accomplish over the next month, three months, six months, and one year. Although your plans have likely been altered, you can still use this time to better yourself and progress towards your goals. You can also use this time to come up with a plan of action to meet your goals when we have overcome our current challenge.
8. Get Your Information from Reliable Sources
- You can find up-to-date and reliable information on COVID-19 at:
9. Limit Your Consumption of News and Social Media
- During emergencies, it is tempting to constantly check the news and social media for updates and information. Although it is important to keep up to date on the situation, constantly checking the news can increase stress and feelings of helplessness.
- Schedule times that you will update yourself on the current situation and stay away from the news during other times.
10. Have a Mental Escape
- Now is not the time to bombard yourself by reading and consuming information regarding outbreaks and disasters at all times of the day and night. This can increase stress and feelings of unease.
- Listen to music, read books, watch movies, listen to podcasts, and consume information on other topics. Some people find that watching or listening to comedy shows helps lighten the mood. Others like to read before bed to allow their mind to relax and let go of the day.
11. Know Yourself and Strategies to Reduce Stress
- Complete a Wellness Action Plan (WAP).2 The WAP is an evidence-based system used to promote positive mental health. It is used to help you identify what keeps you well, what causes you to become unwell, and what to do if you become stressed or experience poor mental health. You can even complete this with a colleague or friend.
12. Support Others
- As health care professionals, people often confide in us during stressful times. Take time to listen to clients, friends, and family, and support them as best you can. Refer to mental health workers if needed.
- Learn how to support others in the “WHO Psychological First Aid: Guide for Field Workers.”3
13. Get Involved
- Sometimes, in disasters, there is a sense of a lack of control. Find ways to get involved within your communities, locally, nationally, or internationally. This can help reduce feelings of helplessness in uncertain times.
*These suggestions are based on research and resources from humanitarian organizations, as well as my own experience working in humanitarian disasters and remote areas. For mental health support and guidance, please speak with a mental health professional. For more information, please see the following resources:
- World Health Organization – Psychological First Aid: Guide for Field Workers3
- Mind – Guide for Employees: Wellness Action Plan (WAPs)2
- IFRC - Caring for Volunteers: A Psychosocial Support Toolkit4
- Solanki, H.K. (2015). Mindfulness and Wellbeing - Mental Health and Humanitarian Aid Workers: A Shift of Emphasis from Treatment to Prevention. Retrieved from: https://www.chsalliance.org/get-support/resource/mindfulness-and-wellbeing/
- Mind. (n.d.). Guide for employees: Wellness Action Plans (WAPs) – How to support your mental health at work [PDF file]. Retrieved from: https://www.mind.org.uk/media/3352173/mind-guide-for-employees-wellness-action-plans.pdf
- World Health Organization. (2011). Psychological first aid: Guide for field workers [PDF file]. Retrieved from: https://apps.who.int/iris/bitstream/handle/10665/44615/9789241548205_eng.pdf;jsessionid=F8C86720A3E35FFF6FCA694016B48DD6?sequence=1
- International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies. (n.d.). Caring for Volunteers – A Psychological Support Toolkit [PDF file]. Retrieved from: https://reliefweb.int/sites/reliefweb.int/files/resources/Caring%20for%20Volunteers%20-%20A%20Psychosocial%20Support%20Toolkit.pdf