The holidays change up everyone’s normal routines. Some people thrive on holiday activities and bustle, while others are dealing with more stress and painful personal experience. For some, especially those working in the field of healthcare, the pace of work doesn’t really slow down.

People need medical care at all times. Someone needs to be on duty around the clock, even on major holidays, taking care of people who are sick and standing by to help with emergency care.

Although healthcare professionals work hard all year, increased stress during the holiday season can take a bigger mental health toll on workers in this essential industry. Here’s what we all need to know about the mental health needs of healthcare workers during the holidays.

The Holidays are Hectic in Healthcare

The holidays look a little different in healthcare since most people don’t get a long break to enjoy time with their families. However, that doesn’t mean people aren’t celebrating and thinking about what they need to do to prepare.

Hospitals decorate for the holidays. Some elective procedures are pushed back and medical facilities operate with fewer staff members so that as many people as possible can have some time off. This means that the people who are working often have more or different responsibilities to worry about.

In all the confusion, it can be a challenge to make sure that the quality of care remains high. It’s important for every patient who walks through the door to get the best possible medical treatment, even when doctors and nurses are dealing with different challenges than they normally do.

Longer Working Hours Lead to Increased Stress

When hospitals and other medical facilities reduce the number of people on staff to accommodate vacation time, people end up working longer hours and becoming increasingly stressed. It’s important for healthcare professionals to not only take care of themselves but to know their rights and fight for them. Good mental health is important for performing safe and productive work, in addition to maintaining general well-being.

Some of these shifts in hours are necessary during the holiday season. However, it’s important for employers to recognize the toll that long hours take on their employees and do their best to offset these issues through smart scheduling, time off, and other techniques to prevent stress-related mental health problems.

The Holiday Season is Charged with Emotion

Medical professionals treat people on their worst days. During the holiday season, people often have heightened emotions—family members might be upset because their loved ones are in the hospital or even die during a time that’s supposed to be happy, or people are spending the season alone in a medical facility. There are so many different emotional responses to the holiday season in the field of medicine that it’s common for healthcare workers to have a heightened emotional response to their work as well.

Nurses and doctors are typically very empathetic and might find that the emotional responses of their patients affect their well-being and state of mind. Seeing someone in emotional pain is never easy, and many professionals struggle because they are only able to help people with their physical ailments. Because of this, some professionals are more prone to developing mental health concerns like burnout or compassion fatigue during the holiday season.

Burnout Happens More Around the Holidays

All the factors that feed into the mental health needs of healthcare workers during the holidays can be a recipe for burnout. Nursing is an especially high-burnout career, and it’s important for anyone in the healthcare field to be aware of the potential for burnout and how to prevent it.

Employers need to be involved year-round in helping their healthcare employees prevent burnout (but especially during the holidays), according to Cassandra Godzik, Ph.D., APRN, PMHNP-BC, CNE, associate dean and professor within the School of Nursing at Regis College.

“Many employers offer an Employee Assistance Program (EAP), which are services available to employees and might include individual therapy/counseling sessions, financial support programs, legal support, and help with locating/paying for child/eldercare services.”

These types of resources can help healthcare workers minimize their stress, which helps to reduce burnout. When signs of burnout, like overwhelm, exhaustion and chronic stress occur, employees need to take a step back and focus on their mental health needs.

Healthcare Professionals Need Extra Self-Care During the Holidays

It can be hard to prioritize one’s own needs, especially during the holiday season. However, it’s important for healthcare workers to engage in self-care so that they can maintain and improve their mental health, even during times of stress.

Godzik has some ideas for how busy healthcare professionals can care for themselves during the holiday season:

“Other self-care options are simple, and time/cost-effective, and can include taking all mandated shift breaks at work (even those short 15-minute breaks can help!), avoiding social media when at work (and maybe even at home!), using mindfulness and meditation apps on your cell phone (many are free, including some from “Calm”), or taking a warm bathtub in the evening. Allowing yourself time for yourself, when not having to engage with others, gives your brain time to rest and recover so that you can help prevent burnout.”

Nurses and Doctors Appreciate Gratitude

Finally, healthcare professionals need to feel appreciated. While we do have holidays like National Nurse Week, showing appreciation around the holidays can help boost healthcare workers’ morale. As Godzik notes:

“Recognizing the hard work that nurses do each day is encouraging to hear. Sharing an expression of gratitude with a nice card or simply a sincere “thank you” goes a long way for nurses to feel appreciated.”

Working in healthcare can sometimes feel a bit thankless, especially when patients and family members are stressed out, rude, or even violent. Any bit of gratitude and appreciation helps to offset the mental toll that can occur from working in healthcare—especially during the busy holiday season.

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Sarah Daren has been a consultant for startups in multiple industries including health and wellness, wearable technology, nursing, and education. She implements her wellness and education knowledge into every aspect of her life, including her position as a yoga instructor and raising her two children. When she's not watching the New York Yankees play, Sarah enjoys practising yoga and reading a good book on the beach.

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