April is National Stress Awareness Month. Work-related stress is by far the most common and costly form of stress in the United States. Stress and its associated impact on our physical and mental health account for the majority of sick days taken each year. The cost to U.S. employers is now estimated at hundreds of millions of dollars each year.
Stress and mental health are highly correlated. Helping our employees manage and cope with stress is paramount, not only as leaders responsible to those who entrust their lives and careers to us, but to the investors and stakeholders relying on us to keep costs down, efficiency peaked and productivity high.
Hospitals are rife with burnout and high turnover. Key moments of stress occur during “code” events. A code in this context, such as Code Blue or Code Red, are announcements hospital staff hear daily over intercoms or shouted from within an ER, ICU or hospital room whenever an on-site emergency is occurring.
The emotional toll of these codes can result in the accumulation of emotional stress, requiring the need for staff to find productive and healthy ways of diffusing that stress in a short period of time before the next crisis occurs. Ask any HR professional and they will quickly tell you that a failure to mitigate such stress can be costly.
A year ago, the leadership team at Raleigh Hospital in Raleigh-Durham, North Carolina, began holding debrief sessions with affected personnel after every “code” event. The on-site debrief process was implemented as an attempt to help hospital staff diffuse emotional stress, improve protocols and reduce burnout and employee turnover.
According to Dr. David Zaas, president of Duke Raleigh Hospital, the process has been highly effective. “These debriefings,” Zaas says, “give staff a chance to talk openly and honestly about the event’s impact, their challenges and frustrations, and about what worked well or could be improved.”
Duke Raleigh recently expanded the application of the program and now uses the debrief process in a greater variety of high-stress situations that might trigger an emotional response or otherwise warrant the need to review procedures. The results are impressive, says Zaas.
Not all work sites experience the kind of high-stress volume one would associate with a hospital setting, but high stress is a reality for most everyone. An application of this kind of protocol should be seriously considered by any manager or organizational leader concerned with work-related stress, workplace harmony and employee wellness.
Implementing a similar process at most any work site is simple and direct. Watch for high-stress moments, unexpected challenges, frustrations or “drop everything” deadlines. Then, immediately following the crisis event, call the group of employees together to encourage a discussion of the circumstances surrounding the event with the intent of learning from the moment and diffusing tension. Allow for the sharing of experiences, frustrations, or a-ha moments, and encourage the identification of opportunities to make things better for next time.
This is not an opportunity to identify weaknesses, failures or mistakes. Using debriefs in this manner only raises stress levels. Rather, ensure everyone understands that the purpose of a debrief is to transform an otherwise stressful event into a “teachable moment,” to help verbalize perspectives, ease tension and help the team improve performance.
Facilitating rather than leading the discussion is a key role for the leader in these moments. Avoid “preaching” or reciting policy. Instead, encourage sharing from all involved, applaud what went well, acknowledge what needs to be done differently next time and sincerely thank everyone for their contribution and commitment to excellence and to one another.
Then, watch for stressful events or interruptions to office routine, and consider how you can help your team best utilize the next debrief to discuss the event openly and frankly, with a focus on learning and cooperative teambuilding, diffusing tension, building communication and honing skill sets.