The Psychology of Caring

Most people go into healthcare for one reason: they want to help people. This type of person is a natural giver in their social circles, and often this extends into their caregiving role at work. Did you know that you don’t necessarily have to have a four-year degree to make a difference in the healthcare industry?

In order for doctors and nurses to confidently take care of their patients, there is an entire support network of staff that must take care of the paperwork, insurance, lab testing and results, scheduling, and billing. Many of these support staff have the same desire to help people that the doctors and nurses have.

The healthcare industry is growing and will continue to grow for many years. Those who want to make a career change would do well to look into the support roles offered in the healthcare industry. Women who suddenly find themselves a single parent can find that their skills caring for their children, often translate well into the healthcare industry. It also will likely give you the regularity of hours, job security, and increased pay you are looking for when you have experienced a change in lifestyle.

Dr. Nicola Davies is a health psychologist and author who has written extensively on professional development in healthcare. According to Dr. Davies, for most healthcare workers the desire or need to give care is part of their makeup and this role will come out in other areas of their life too. Here, she gives tips on how to provide quality care to patients, while maintaining your own physical and mental health.

Creating a Priority Matrix

  • Divide a piece of paper into four sections. You can do this by folding a piece of paper in half twice.
  • Label the sections: Important and Urgent; Important and Non-urgent; Unimportant and Urgent; and, Unimportant and Non-urgent.
  • Place your tasks into the appropriate section for an overview of where you should be spending your time, and when.
  • To ensure tasks that are important, but not urgent, get done before they become urgent work on them for a set amount of time before the urgency hits.

Patient priorities

When working in healthcare, no matter your role there will be a multitude of competing demands on your time. You have to be able to prioritize what you do, and when you do it, to meet the needs of patients, management, medical staff, and coworkers. Dr. Davies suggests having a system in place, such as the priority matrix (see box on right), to ensure that task management is not a stressful undertaking.

“A system for task management can seem procedural and almost robotic, but they are necessary in an environment where you have so many competing demands,” Dr. Davies said. “You need a system in place that eases some of the pressures associated with trying to juggle so many tasks while maintaining high-quality patient care.”

When dealing with patients, they obviously need to be your top priority. First impressions are vital if you want to put patients at ease.

“If you work behind the scenes, you may not get the opportunity to offer more than a warm smile to patients, but if your job puts you in one-on-one contact with them be sure to take the initiative to introduce yourself and develop rapport early,” Dr. Davies said.

“Make sure the way you dress portrays you as professional and competent because no matter how we feel about it, people will form an impression from your outward appearance. Also, make sure you pay attention to the information you are conveying nonverbally. Eye contact, good posture and open body language can tell a patient that you are listening, that you know what you are doing and that you are approachable.”

Interpersonal skills are vital if you are going to work in healthcare. Above all, by simply being polite and kind you can improve the day of a patient who is feeling vulnerable or scared.

“If you take on a frontline healthcare role such as Medical Assistant, you will need to go beyond providing physical care. You will also need to be able to empathize with the mental state of those you are caring for,” Dr. Davies said.

“While sympathy acknowledges a patient’s suffering, empathy shares it. Offering empathy will allow you to interact with patients on an emotional level, which in turn will help establish trust between you.”

According to Dr. Davies, you should use active listening skills to ensure patients have your complete attention, and it is good advice when dealing with management too.

“Listening and active listening are completely different. Most of us can listen, but within healthcare we want to hear – really hear what a person is saying,” Dr. Davies said. “This involves not only listening to specific words, but also to tone and body language. Does the patient say they are fine, while anxiously biting their bottom lip? In such a situation, rather than simply move on, reflect back to the patient that you hear their words, but you are picking up some anxiety. Then simply ask if that is the case. You may be wrong, but the patient will feel seen and heard through this simple observation and demonstration of active listening.”

Four ways to develop resilience

In caregiving positions, it is easy to take your work home with you. You already are a caring person, so you naturally want people to be okay. Even in front office roles, you might know that a patient is having problems getting insurance to pay for a necessary procedure, and worry what might happen to that patient if they cannot financially figure out what to do. You must develop ways to deal with these feelings and build up resilience to the harder, more emotional parts of the job.

Support Networks: The people around you are your best support networks. Swap coping strategies with work colleagues, reach out to friends and family, just make sure you talk to someone who you feel comfortable being honest with, and who takes the time to listen and understand you.

Growth Mindset: Developing a growth mindset means that you treat each interaction and crises as an opportunity to learn. Being open to new experiences and seeing challenges as a chance to solve problems will help you be flexible in the face of changing workplaces.

Emotional Intelligence: Emotional intelligence isn’t just about identifying emotions, you also need to be able to express them appropriately, and effectively perceive them in others. Developing emotional intelligence is a way to cope with the emotional labor of caring work. If you acknowledge and deal with emotions, especially the difficult ones, then you will have more control over how they affect you and your work.

Balance: The best way to ensure you have a good work/life balance is to know when to ‘clock out’. Allow yourself to forget about work and concentrate on yourself or your family. If you find this difficult, come up with a task or activity that you enjoy that you can get lost in for a while to clear your mind: go for a walk, read a book, even watching a TV show can help, but it’s probably best to avoid hospital dramas!

Caring for the carer

Working in health care can be incredibly rewarding, but there is a price to pay for so much caring. When you are constantly providing others with emotional support and watching people in pain, it can take a toll on your physical and mental well-being. In turn, this can affect your ability to continue to care for others.

Dr. Davies said that the most important thing you can do to protect your health, and your patients, is to stay home and rest when you are unwell. Presenteeism, the phenomena where people continue to go to work, even when they are sick or in pain, is a significant issue in healthcare.

“There can be both physical and mental health repercussions to forcing yourself to attend work,” Dr. Davies said. “Presenteeism has been shown to result in higher levels of burnout and stress, and if it continues too long, eventually, you may even leave your chosen profession due to ongoing illness or stress.”

Presenteeism doesn’t just impact on your health, but can also have a fatal impact on patients too.

“You are putting patients in danger by going to work sick, especially if you work in a hospital setting,” Dr. Davies said. “What you consider a little cold or a stomach bug can have catastrophic effects on an already ill patient. The CDC estimates that there are nearly 750,000 health-care related infections every year in the U.S., and presenteeism plays a considerable role in these deaths.”

The quality of the care you can give patients suffers if you are ‘under the weather’.

“Being physically unwell and not thinking clearly at work as a result of presenteeism has been shown to produce a higher likelihood of patient falls and medication errors,” Dr. Davies said. “Even if you don’t deal directly with patients often, the risk of passing on infection or making a clerical error is simply too high to risk going to work when you are unwell.”

Emotional labor refers to work that requires you to regulate your emotions, feelings, and expressions in order to fulfill your role. Those who take on caring roles must do this constantly. Helping those who are unwell is often what attracts people to healthcare occupations, however too much can lead to emotional exhaustion and depression.

“To have a sustainable career you need to have a plan to mitigate the effects of the emotional labor required in healthcare,” Dr. Davies said.  “Building resilience (see box on right), your ability to cope in the face of change and adversity, can allow you to maintain an emotionally labor-intensive role while still looking after your mental health.”

Have you ever thought about a career that involves caring for others? Fill out the form for more information on getting the skills and certifications you need to take on an entry-level healthcare position.

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