Doctors are twice as likely to commit suicide than others in the U.S., and nurses have high rates of opioid and substance abuse — indicators, perhaps, of the stress they may feel dealing with patients who experience poverty and violence.
Some are among the clients of Philadelphia’s Red Kite Project, a mental health consulting company that teaches interventions for workplace trauma.
Steve Wilmot oversees one of the Delaware Valley’s largest pediatric care centers with the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. Providers are often confronted with bigger problems than they can solve in one appointment, he said.
He described the way a doctor’s visit might go:
“I’m here, and you’re here with your four kids, but only one of them has an appointment, and all of them need a flu shot. So let’s register the entire family and get everybody a flu shot and check everybody’s ears. And let’s try and meet the needs of your entire family in this half-hour visit.”
With dwindling employee retention, Wilmot partnered with the Red Kite Project.
It’s important for everyone who works in a stressful job to recognize the physical symptoms of feeling constantly overwhelmed, said Red Kite CEO and founder Charlotte DiBartolomeo. That can include feeling numb or jaded.
“Even if it’s not happening to you, your system is saying, ‘This is dangerous,'” she said. “[I]t’s vicarious trauma that you’re collecting. And so your body has collected all this traumatic stress, all these survival chemicals. If you don’t shake them off, then that’s where you start to experience some of the symptoms that become long term.”
Some of those long-term symptoms include heart and digestion problems, as well as mental health and substance abuse issues. These problems also mean constant employee turnover that’s challenging for administrators.
“After a while, you start to see people having more absenteeism,” DiBartolomeo said. “Then, when absenteeism occurs, the people who are still there who are just trying to cover for that person, that becomes a stress for them. So, organizationally, [the stress] becomes a cycle.”
Most medical training doesn’t really teach people how to handle the stress of working in medicine, Wilmot said. “If they do, it’s more of an elective class,” he said.
Providing a space for employees to talk about their symptoms — and troubleshoot solutions — has made a difference, he said.
“Red Kite has also helped me look at hiring practices and preparing new employees for the level of stress that they could experience,” Wilmot added. “And just by preparing people better, I’m seeing better retention. Because people are saying, ‘Yeah, you told me that this might be something that I might be challenged with.'”
Wilmot said he hopes training will help employees better understand the effects of stress.
“And accept that maybe a thousand small changes are going to add up to the greatest change possible. So while I may not have combated obesity in West Philadelphia, I got that one family connected with a resource that made a difference for them,” he said. “Sometimes, that’s where we need to sit.”