Reflections on the Importance of Mindfulness among Health Workers
The 6th Regulating for Decent Work ILO Conference held early last month brought several interesting discussions regarding many aspects of decent work conditions and workers’ well-being in the 21st century. One of them was related to the growing concept of mindfulness and its importance among the health workforce. In the words of Bento Soares, the Senior Associate Dean for Research at the University of Illinois College of Medicine at Peoria, “we have been predominantly concerned with the technical skills and the knowledge that are required for the practice of medicine, but we forget that there’s an individual that’s delivering that”.
When talking about health, it is common to think about our bodies and illnesses that they can develop. Predominately, health is still associated with hospitals, clinics, and medicines. However, health is much more than that. The World Health Organization defines health as “a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity”. In fact, social relationships and mental health are the two main pillars of well-being and happiness for everyone.
“Mindfulness” is “a mental state achieved by focusing one’s awareness on the present moment, while calmly acknowledging and accepting one’s feelings, thoughts, and bodily sensations, used as a therapeutic technique”. Emma Roberts, the managing director of Pause for Thought and guest lecturer on mindfulness at Bradford University, describes mindfulness as a practice that “improves your relationship with yourself and others and is the process of maintaining a good sense of health and wellness emotionally and physically”.
A paradox can be found when talking about the importance of mindfulness among the health practitioners, who are expected to deliver care to the patients. Research has shown that health workers in charge of providing help and support to other people and in direct interaction with them, tend to have higher levels of emotional stress, depression, and burnout than other kinds of workers. Why? Health workers deal daily with long working hours that can be full of pain and suffering of patients and have to regularly face stressful situations. Also, they often have limited resources, complex tasks and relationship with patients, peers, and families. To deal with this reality, mindfulness has appeared in the health sector in a very limited form, usually only as a specific training that some health workers are “lucky” enough to have in their specific workplace.
Mindfulness in health workers needs much more attention and a comprehensive delivery plan.
To start with, medical training should include in the curricula, education about burnout detection, prevention and the ways peer support can help the health team. It should also include a gender-approached measure toward the issue that women health workers are the most affected in this area. Moreover, there needs to be a specific procedure to deal with potential and current burnout cases which must respect the privacy and the career of the health workers who require health care. These ideas have to also come with reflections on the practical implications that could appear, such as how to arrange the schedule of training of the health workers to include this education when they already face long working hours and how it is possible to make sure there is a budget for it.
Mindfulness increases health workers’ efficiency and productivity, thus leading them to work better and provide satisfactory care for their patients. By creating a system where health workers can ask for help using a mindfulness-based approach, we enhance their well-being, support them to build resilience and address burnout. Definitely, the concern about mental health is just one of the components of decent work conditions but increasing its awareness will contribute to the goal of decent work. Furthermore, by recognizing health workers’ rights, needs, and care and also acting according to it will have a positive impact on the whole health system, which represents benefits for all.
About the Author
Katherine Durand is a Peruvian lawyer with a Master degree in Public Policy, with an interest in human rights, social justice, and labour policies. She is currently supported by the School of Public Policy at the Central European University, to be a fellow at Health Law Institute.