[caption id="attachment_219451" align="alignnone" width="1000"] Dr. Heather Farley has made it her mission to provide "care for caregivers." The Center for WorkLife Wellbeing at ChristianaCare recently was named a recipient of the American Medical Association’s Joy in Medicine Health System Recognition Program. | PHOTO COURTESY OF CHRISTIANACARE[/caption]
NEWARK — Roughly five years before the COVID-19 pandemic pushed the healthcare industry to the brink and back again, Dr. Heather Farley had seen enough cases in the emergency room to know not everyone has a happy ending.“There were a few that rocked me to my core, and at that time the culture in health care was silence and stoicism. It wasn’t OK to talk about why you’re struggling,” she said. “It made it really difficult to process it and move forward. I actually got to the point where I thought I didn’t want to be a doctor anymore.”Through support from a professional career coach, Farley regained her joy for the work and began talking to others about the experience. Today, she serves as ChristianaCare’s chief wellness officer and directs the system’s comprehensive staff-support program, the Center for WorkLife Wellbeing. Launched in 2016, the center was created to develop and maintain support systems.The program helped ChristianaCare be recognized by the American Medical Association for a Joy in Medicine distinction, receiving a gold recognition, the highest level within the program. Medical professionals have long been hit by burnout and work-related stress worsening a prevalence of suicide – a phenomenon that has grown worse amid the pandemic. About 38% of physicians and other health care workers self-reported experiencing anxiety or depression during the pandemic, while 43% suffered from work overload and 49% had burnout, according to a national study published in the medical journal Lancet.“I think the culture that existed for a very long time was one in which self-sacrifice and overwork was praised, even rewarded,” Farley said. “Now we're understanding that health care is much more of a team sport.”The Center for WorkLife Wellbeing established a network and systems to support staff even before the worst of the pandemic arrived in Delaware, providing mindfulness resources, inspiration texts and rounds where experts check on staff wellbeing.There are designated “oasis rooms,” offering sanctuaries inside the hospital where staff can go to take a break, de-stress, meditate or enjoy a chair massage. Fitness centers and 24/7 mental and nutrition services are also available to those in need.But most critical is the Care for the Caregiver program — one of Farley’s first initiatives — that offers confidential peer and group sessions to support caregivers when they struggle with issues facing patient care. About 75 staff members are trained to provide psychological first aid to caregivers whom they recognize are struggling as well as connect them to helpful resources if needed.“It’s to provide a friendly ear from someone who’s been there and help you get the help to process those emotions,” Farley said. “I really wanted to create the conditions where what happened to me would never happen again to anyone in our health system or any of my colleagues.”While Farley noted that many health care systems across the country first struggled with wellness program participation early in the pandemic, ChristianaCare saw more buy-in from its staff members. That program logged 508 one-on-one peer support sessions and 90 group sessions in 2020, and from January to October 2021, there were another 58 one-on-one sessions and 30 group sessions.Still, the program continues to evolve in the ever-changing needs of health care providers as the country enters into the third year of the pandemic. About 260 ChristianaCare leaders were also trained to recognize when team members are struggling and how to best respond.For those considering how to address wellbeing at other health care offices, Farley advises leaders to examine the environment surrounding the workers rather than the workers themselves. That means fostering a culture where the office focuses on psychological safety, equity, autonomy and connection — as well as reducing red tape to get some staff back to do what they love.“If you think about what health is, health isn’t the absence of disease. Joy is not professional fulfillment or the absence of burnout,” Farley said. “We shouldn't just be trying to get rid of burnout, we should actually be creating an environment where our employees or our caregivers can flourish and thrive. You can’t take a canary out of the coal mine, teach it to be more resilient and stick it back in and expect it to survive.”
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