Keeping the practice’s mental health top of mind

January 6, 2022
Unsurprisingly, our stress levels are at the highest point in decades. How can you help ease anxiety and promote mental health in your practice?
Keeping the practice’s mental health top of mind

Coming off the most stressful years in recent memory, many Americans cautiously embark on 2022 with fresh anxieties and even a touch of cynicism—after all, who hasn’t seen the new year referred to as 2020, two.

Unsurprisingly, 2020 officially became the most stressful year since the Great Recession, capping off a decade-long downward spiral of negative emotions worldwide as documented by the Gallup Negative Experience Index. In a year plagued by COVID-19, natural disasters, social unrest and feverish political discourse, about 40% of surveyed adults said they experienced worry or stress, “rocketing up” by five whole percentage points from 2019. That, alone, accounted for nearly 190 million more people globally experiencing significant stress through most of their day.

But 2020 was unprecedented. Surely 2021 wasn’t that bad—right?

Unfortunately, early indicators suggest our stress didn’t budge at all last year. Using different metrics, the American Psychological Association (APA) Stress in America™ survey found the average reported level of stress among American adults remained at a chart-topping 5.0 from 2020 into 2021.

“While a year over year comparison of significant sources of stress shows a downward trend across most factors, work- and housing-costs-related stress slightly increased from 2020,” the 2021 APA Stress in America executive summary reads, further noting dramatic spikes in stress over the economy, personal safety and discrimination.

Such is the case, all that stress is taking its toll. The 2021 APA Stress in America report found that nearly three-quarters of U.S. adults experienced various health or behavioral impacts from stress, including:

  • 34% experienced headaches
  • 34% felt overwhelmed
  • 32% felt fatigued
  • 32% experienced changes in sleep habits
  • 23% altered eating habits
  • 22% altered physical activity levels or procrastinated/neglected responsibilities

Although stress is a very normal response to such challenges and experiences, when it begins to negatively affect daily routines in a significant way, it’s time to take action. Learning to cope with stress in a healthy way can make you—and your practice—more resilient, especially in these uncertain times.

3 tips for managing team stress in the practice

As primary eye health care providers, doctors of optometry and paraoptometric staff are no less immune to the daily stressors and anxieties described by these reports. Optometric professionals face their own set of circumstances and experiences that exacerbate daily stress, which is why it’s important for clinics and practices to approach 2022 with a mind for good mental health.

Beverly Roberts, CPOT, director of clinics for four Mississippi-based optometric practices, notes that stress and anxiety often derive from uncertainty, something that the public health emergency has delivered in spades. Consequently, Roberts identifies three areas for helping mitigate stress in the office:

  1. Communication

    To counter the anxiety of uncertainty, Roberts emphasizes the importance of clear communication among the care team. Open, honest conversations can help resolve small problems quickly and easily before they blossom into a much larger problem. Roberts doesn’t hesitate to approach “the biggest, baddest and ugliest” of conversations, but always keeps a measured tone of voice and a willingness to address the issue immediately.

    “Confusion often comes about because we haven’t had a discussion,” she says. “Let’s have a conversation and find a solution, because if it has you concerned then it concerns me, too.”

  2. Consistency.

    Likewise, to counter anxiety from uncertainty, Roberts points to the benefits of maintaining a consistent work environment. Maintaining consistency in the workplace helps set employee expectations and removes ambiguity, two points that have been particularly important during the pandemic.

    “We can say all day long how we as a practice need to follow the CDC guidelines, but the team really needs to be comforted that the administrators in the office are addressing that,” Roberts says. “We put our own, clear guidelines in place and kept it simple. It’s already chaotic outside the office, so we kept it simple to eliminate those ‘what ifs.’”

    Following consistent protocols and routines keeps the entire care team on the same page. Likewise, it helps reinforce everyone’s individual responsibilities, so when an inevitable short-staffing situation develops, the care team doesn’t miss a beat.

  3. Comfort

    Lastly, Roberts reiterates the benefits of creating a safe, positive work environment. In her practices, the morning meeting each day serves as an opportunity not only to infuse positivity but also care for staff undergoing trying times.

    “We have had sadness in our office during COVID—don’t get me wrong,” she says. “But as an administrator, I feel like my job has really been to be a comfort zone and bring that comfort.”

In addition to stress and anxiety, this time of year also can have a detrimental and often understated effect on doctors’ and staff mental health, says AOA Trustee Jacquie Bowen, O.D. Optometry is a profession that operates, out of necessity, in dimly lit exam lanes where oftentimes care team members leave for work and return home in the winter dark. This overall lack of sunlight can reduce the body’s serotonin activity—a chemical contributing to feelings of happiness—and may be a contributor to seasonal affective disorder (SAD). Moreover, the lack of sunlight in the winter months may also lead to a vitamin D deficiency and an overproduction of melatonin, both contributing to mental sluggishness and mood changes.

“This lack of sunlight can add to existing stressors like the pandemic, workplace burdens, personal issues, and lack of proper diet and exercise,” Dr. Bowen says.

Such is the case, Dr. Bowen suggests acknowledging the need for routine self-care, especially during this time of year, and considering:

  • Trying supplements, including vitamins C and D.
  • Taking a break outside or at least being near a window/daylight.
  • Stretching and deep breathing. Dr. Bowen suggests taking a deep, full breath for 5 seconds, holding it in for 5 seconds and exhaling across 8 seconds, or rolling your shoulders and neck for a count of 20.
  • Drinking more water. “Consider what you think is enough and then double it,” Dr. Bowen adds.

For more information about coping with stress, access the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommendations for good mental health and coping techniques.

Learn more at AOA EyeLearn

Paraoptometrics can access Beverly Roberts’ lecture on “Stress and Relaxation in the Workplace,” available at the AOA EyeLearn Professional Development Hub, and receive 1 hour of CPC-approved credit upon successful completion.

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