Especially now, with COVID-19 still stretching healthcare and social service providers thin, the topic of distress on the job is particularly relevant. Many jobs, even pre-COVID, contain distressing elements that are recurring. Caregiving jobs may be particularly prone to causing employees to feel regularly distressed. These are jobs where you work with others to enable their growth and healing. Doctors, nurses, social service providers, teachers, and employees of non-profit organizations often fall into this category. If you work in one of these jobs, or know someone who does, this article is for you! Even if you don’t work in one of these roles, you might have distressing elements in your job anyway. Read on to learn how to best handle those distressing scenarios!
Caring for Others is Rewarding, But Distressing
Caregiving is an important element of our society. We need to give care to those who are sick, in need of legal or social assistance, or would benefit from continued growth. But, caring for others can be distressing because we are social beings who thrive on connections. Relationships at work can build with coworkers. But, they can also build with patients, students, or clients. When you form a bond with people you are providing care to, it can be really fulfilling. But, it can also be distressing if things aren’t going well.
For example, if a patient is sick and won’t get better, nurses or doctors might experience sadness or loss. If a student is struggling with personal or familial problems, teachers can absorb some of that emotional burden. When clients are going through a really difficult time in life, such as experiences of abuse, hunger, or homelessness, service providers can embody their pain. Especially in instances of crisis, when many caregiving relationships may become more challenging at the same time, this type of work can be particularly overwhelming.
Distressing Situations Can Cause Relationship Avoidance
It may seem that pushing your emotions to the side when experiencing distress at work is the best way to cope. There is a common belief that you need to grow a “thick skin” when working under distressing circumstances. In caregiving organizations, employees may try to focus just on the task at hand and brush their emotions off. They may also try to avoid coworkers who are having a hard time coping, for fear that they will get sucked into their emotions.
However, this isn’t actually the best way to deal with the distress you’re feeling. You are still feeling the emotions and they are still impacting you, even if you aren’t recognizing them head-on. It is better to actually acknowledge the distress you’re feeling and find ways to effectively unpack it. Supporting coworkers who are having a hard time, instead of avoiding them, is also preferable. If you ignore your emotions, they don’t simply go away. They are lingering there under the surface and can lead to burnout in the long-term. Recognizing your emotions and working to address them is the best way forward.
Changing Your Reactions to Caregiving at Work
When groups collectively experience trauma, they will work together less effectively if they don’t cope with it. So, while it might seem unnecessary, or overly emotional, you need to dedicate time to decompressing. This is true individually and as a team. Even if one part of your organization is more affected by distressing circumstances than another (e.g., an ER versus another unit in a hospital), redistributing resources and finding ways to help each other cope is important. Everyone should be involved in conversations about how to cope with distress that is impacting members of the organization, if possible.
First, take time to write down the emotions you’re experiencing on a daily basis. Tell yourself that it’s ok that you feel these emotions. Then, write down something that you’re going to do each day to decompress. It might be journaling about your feelings, practicing mindful meditation, or sharing your thoughts with a friend. Without replenishing your resources, they will continue to be drained, even if you don’t realize it.
Second, try to think of something you can do with your team to shift the culture. Maybe you can bring up that you have been feeling stretched thin lately and that one of these strategies has helped. You can then suggest that the group decompress together or participate in one of these activities as a team. Others will likely appreciate you raising this point because they are feeling the same. Taking this relational pause together can help you be more resilient over time!
What has worked for you in coping with distress at work? Are there certain strategies you really like or dislike? Finally, if you’re working in one of these situations, thank you. We need caregivers in society and the work you do is so important. We hope that this article helps you to stick with it in the long-term!