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Trauma Care Workers Share Tips on Dealing with the Stress of Their Jobs

Self-care and work/life balance are critical for people with careers involving frequent life and death situations.

As one of Grady Memorial Hospital's top trauma surgeons, Anuradha Subramanian, M.D., spends her days making life and death decisions.

The patients she treats at Grady, an Atlanta Level 1 trauma center, arrive with devastating and potentially fatal conditions, including brain injuries, spinal cord injuries and more.

“These are stressful situations,” Dr. Subramanian says. “We have to make life-saving decisions with very little information, at a moment’s notice, day in and day out.”

At the end of a shift, Dr. Subramanian is often physically and mentally exhausted, and her legs ache and her body hurts. But she goes home with a sense of accomplishment, which is no small feat given the critical and heart-wrenching situations she’s immersed in all day.

Maintaining a sense of balance and inner peace can be particularly challenging for trauma care workers who are routinely faced with one crisis after another. But there are preventative and proactive ways to maintain personal wellness and avoid burnout, professionals say.

Here are some tips, shared by trauma care workers and psychologists, for increasing resiliency and maintaining well-being.

Self-Care is Critical

If you’ve ridden in an airplane before, it’s likely you’ve heard the safety talk before take-off in which passengers are advised to put on their oxygen mask first before attempting to help a child or someone else.

The same theory applies to coping with life as a trauma care worker, says Laura Hoskins, Psy.D, former director of neuropsychology at Shepherd Center.

“You need to take care of yourself so you can be a good caregiver,” Dr. Hoskins says.

The term self-care is a broad umbrella encompassing many things, but Dr. Hoskins says it includes such things as making a point to participate in leisure activities that are enjoyable for you and getting an appropriate amount of sleep, proper nutrition and exercise.

Exercise, in particular, can help address the mental and the physical challenges faced by trauma care workers.

“I work out almost every day,” Dr. Subramanian says. “I get up at 4 a.m., while my kids and husband are still asleep. It clears my head for the day.”

Even brief, two-minute mindfulness exercises at your desk can help. The bottom line is to find what works for you and make it part of your routine.

Divide Your Time Clearly

Leave work at work. It’s a message repeated by multiple trauma care veterans. You may be tempted to bring the caseload home, reviewing records in off hours, taking phone calls at home, but it’s best to end that habit.

“It took me having two kids to formally draw that line,” says Nicole Moulder, ACNP-BC, a nurse practitioner who works in trauma services at Northeast Georgia Medical Center in Gainesville, Georgia, and sees everything from minor, single body system injuries to life threatening multi-system traumas. “When I’m at home, I am home with my kids. Having that separation keeps me healthy, and it keeps up my stamina. It takes a conscious effort to leave work at work.”

Talk with a Colleagues About How You’re Feeling

Don’t keep the stress and emotion bottled up.

“Reach out to your peers, it doesn’t have to be professional help,” Dr. Hoskins says. “It can just be a conversation with a co-worker about: ‘This is a stressful case. How would you handle it?’”

Additionally, it’s important to simply be aware of how you’re feeling. In small doses, thoughts about quitting your job or changing your occupation, or doubting your professional ability, are normal. But if it becomes a trend, consider reaching out to a colleague or someone you trust to talk about your feelings.

“The first step is identifying that something is different or recognizing the symptoms, and then doing something about it. And that’s the self-care piece,” Dr. Hoskins explains.

Conversely, Dr. Hoskins also advises keeping an eye out for coworkers who may appear burned out and talking with them about what’s going on.

“We would encourage saying to another colleague: ‘You seem like you’re stressed. Are you working longer hours? Have you been working on a challenging case? I just want to check in.’”

Establishing Good Communication with Patients and Their Families Can Be Healing

Dr. Subramanian learned an immensely important lesson early on in her career: Your interactions with patients and their families can be mutually rewarding.

Not only does establishing good communication help the patient and their family through a traumatic time, it can help you as the medical professional to cope and find some peace.

“For me, it’s the relationships I make with families and patients, being able to talk to them, and to get them physically, mentally and emotionally through it,” Dr. Subramanian explains. “Even though you might have to tell a young patient they may never walk again, to be able to get them through that challenge and give them the support they need in that moment, it’s very rewarding. It is something we can give them, that strength.”

Create a Full Life Outside of Your Job

Make sure your self-identity is not completely wrapped up in your role as a trauma care worker. Having a full life outside of work will help you maintain a healthy outlook and sense of balance.

“Outside of what you do for a living, you are a mom, a dad, a coach, a professor,” says Chelsea Day, Psy.D., a Shepherd Center clinical neuropsychologist. “Make sure you don’t just self-identify as a healthcare worker. You have to have a life outside of here and have other roles that you fill. You are not just a doctor or a nurse; you are a mom, a friend, a member of the volleyball team. Don’t let your job define who you are through and through.”

Additional Resources

The website provides many useful articles and tips for dealing with workplace stress, including suggestions for taking care of yourself at work and supporting others in the workplace.

Written by Mia Taylor
Staff Photos by Gary Meek

About Shepherd Center

Shepherd Center provides world-class clinical care, research, and family support for people experiencing the most complex conditions, including spinal cord and brain injuries, multi-trauma, traumatic amputations, stroke, multiple sclerosis, and pain. An elite center recognized as both Spinal Cord Injury and Traumatic Brain Injury Model Systems, Shepherd Center is ranked by U.S. News as one of the nation’s top hospitals for rehabilitation. Shepherd Center treats thousands of patients annually with unmatched expertise and unwavering compassion to help them begin again.