It’s no secret that health care workers are some of the most stressed and burned-out professionals in the workforce. Health care was a tough job even before we had to bear the brunt of the worst of the pandemic. Even now that we’re nearly four years out from the initial outbreak of COVID-19, we’re still contending with a myriad of challenges, such as mental health disorders and ever-diminishing staff.
Amidst these ongoing struggles, there are dedicated individuals and groups tirelessly working behind the scenes to enforce safe staffing ratios or push for federal legislation to address workplace violence. But as they say, “Bureaucracy moves at the speed of molasses in January.” In the meantime, stepping into the new year is the perfect time to shift focus and prioritize your well-being—especially in a field where taking care of others comes first, and self-care inevitably falls by the wayside.
For those of us on the front lines, here are five evidence-based strategies that can improve your life—and all it takes is five minutes or less for five days straight.
Before your inner critic chimes in with, “I’m busy!” Or, “You don’t know how much overtime I just picked up!” consider this: there are 86,400 seconds in a day, and all five of these things take less than 1,500 seconds. That’s less than 1.7 percent of your day for strategies that are proven to have a massive impact on reaching your goals, feeling less stressed, and boosting your happiness.
Bad habits are hard to break, and good habits are hard to develop, but it can start today with these five habits:
1. Practice mindfulness or meditation. Embracing the habit of mindfulness or meditation has been shown to significantly transform the stress response. Regular meditation reduces the body’s inflammatory response to stress and elicits changes in brain function and structure that allow us to more rapidly recover from stressful events. Additionally, those who practice mindfulness respond less to negative stimuli and show a heightened positive response to positive images, effectively rebalancing the natural tendency to focus on life’s negatives.
2. Take a cold shower. Taking a cold shower can offer surprising health benefits. The shock of cold water on the body has been shown to stimulate the production of mood-boosting neurotransmitters, providing a natural lift in mood and potentially easing symptoms of depression. Additionally, cold showers have been shown to enhance the immune response, which is particularly beneficial for those in high-stress environments like health care, where chronic stress can often compromise the body’s immune defenses.
3. Eat two servings of fruits or vegetables. Incorporating just two pieces of fruit or vegetables into your daily diet can have profound benefits for your physical and mental health. These natural foods are rich in fiber and essential nutrients, which nourish your body and gut microbiome, a key player in the production and function of neurotransmitters. Daily avocado consumption, for example, has been shown in studies to improve cognitive function and reduce visceral fat.
4. Start a gratitude journal. Writing down five things you’re grateful for every day has been shown to improve well-being, lower diastolic blood pressure, and potentially decrease the incidence of depression. Engaging in this simple practice helps shift the focus from negative or overwhelming thoughts to positive aspects of life, fostering a sense of contentment and peace. Over time, this habit can enhance mental resilience, improve mood, and even lead to a more optimistic outlook on life as you regularly acknowledge and appreciate the good around you.
5. Stretch. Health care workers have physically demanding jobs with high rates of injury. Regular stretching can not only help prevent these injuries by increasing flexibility and reducing muscle tension but also enhance overall physical well-being. Interestingly, stretching exercises have also been linked to mental health benefits. Just like more intense forms of exercise, stretching can influence serotonin levels, offering a dual benefit of maintaining physical fitness while also contributing to mental wellness.
While not an exhaustive list, these five things can jumpstart a happier and healthier year. By spending less than 2 percent of your day, you can be more productive at work and home, feel better physically and mentally, prevent chronic disease, and enhance your relationships with loved ones and colleagues—all it takes is five days to develop a new routine with an improved mindset and better quality of life.
Scott Ellner has been a general surgeon for over 20 years, and can be reached at PEAK Health. He has transitioned into health care executive roles due to his passion for patient safety, quality, and value-based care delivery. His authentic leadership style inspires team members to navigate challenging situations, such as resistance to change and innovation, in order to bring about meaningful transformation. Most recently, he served as the CEO of Billings Clinic, the largest health system in Montana. During his tenure, Forbes recognized the clinic as the best place to work in the state. It was also at that time that he formulated a strategic growth plan that included the development of a level 1 trauma network and a rural-based clinically integrated network.