Release Date: April 20, 2020
BUFFALO, N.Y. – For health care professionals on the front lines of the COVID-19 pandemic, practicing mindful self-care – even if for minutes each day – can help with avoiding burnout, says University at Buffalo self-care expert Catherine Cook-Cottone.
Mindful self-care, or maintaining awareness of and tending to one’s physical, mental and emotional needs, may also help health care professionals improve the care they provide to patients, she adds.
“Their work is demanding, overwhelming, frightening and unpredictable. Self-care can be the one thing that’s predictable in their life,” says Cook-Cottone, PhD, professor of counseling, school and educational psychology in the UB Graduate School of Education.
Neglecting physical and emotional needs can be catastrophic, especially for health care professionals, says Cook-Cottone, who also provides self-care training to humanitarian workers deployed to refugee camps and war zones through the United Nations Foundation’s Peace on Purpose program.
Providers may experience vicarious trauma and develop symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, develop stress-related illnesses, become numb and depersonalize patients, or turn to unhealthy habits to cope such as problem drinking or stress eating.
“The nervous system doesn’t understand what’s going on. It’s just experiencing stress,” says Cook-Cottone, who is also an expert on anxiety-based disorders. “If you’re starting to feel ineffective and overwhelmed, it’s important to know when to dial it back in.”
Small steps for a hectic schedule
Self-care will not get in the way of responsibilities, and health care professionals should not view it as homework, says Cook-Cottone. In fact, self-care can be implemented during daily activities or within brief moments throughout the workday.
A few practices include:
“As a patient, you know which clinicians know their ‘why.’ It’s not in the words they say; you can feel it in how they’re present with you. You feel safer in their hands,” says Cook-Cottone.
The burden of implementing self-care should not rest solely on employees, she adds.
Managers and supervisors can encourage its practice and create an environment that helps their staff cope with pressure by taking brief moments before meetings to acknowledge the stress employees are under, creating space in the schedule for staff to take care of themselves and expressing gratitude for their efforts.
A scale for self-care
A useful tool for health care professionals seeking to measure and improve their self-care is the mindful self-care scale, developed by Cook-Cottone in 2015.
Validated and standardized among community members and health care and hospice workers, the scale asks users 33 questions to grade their daily behaviors that shape mindful and supportive routines, environments and relationships.
The tool asks a variety of questions about the frequency of self-care activities, from how much water is consumed each day to how often the user engages in comforting self-talk. Once complete, users gain a sense of their strengths and weaknesses in the domains of self-care. With these benchmarks, they can create testable goals to improve and measure progress.
“There is no right score,” says Cook-Cottone. “Acceptable scores will vary from person to person. The tool is more about connecting with yourself to mitigate exposure to stress by promoting positive and healthy behaviors, remembering your ‘why’ and preventing negative coping strategies.”
The mindful self-care scale is available on Cook-Cottone’s website.