Protecting our Helpers and Healers: A Conversation that’s Overdue


A recent article in the Washington Post, What’s one of America’s most dangerous jobs? It’s not what you think (Sept 11, 2017) brought attention to the specter of workplace violence that nurses and other healthcare staff face on a daily basis.

Conventional wisdom has long been that nurses and doctors face violence only if they work in the Emergency Department at an urban hospital, thanks to television shows such as E.R., Law and Order, Chicago Med, and more. The violence is nearly always depicted as being perpetrated by drunk or drug-addled patients. Yet the reality is that violence also comes from disgruntled family members of sick patients, such as the man who shot and killed Dr. Michael Davidson at a Boston hospital in 2015, after his mother died a month post-surgery. Bodily harm can even come from other people in helper roles, such as the police detective who roughed up and arrested Nurse Alex Wubbels in a Salt Lake City hospital just a few weeks ago, when she upheld hospital policy regarding a blood draw from a patient who couldn’t give consent.

This is the hidden reality of hospital work: facing violence, from patients and even colleagues, so regularly that organizations like the American Nurses Association needed to set a zero-tolerance policy in 2015. Clearly, we are woefully underprepared.

In recent years the number of hospitals with Active Shooter trainings, such as Run. Hide. Fight., has increased significantly. However, few hospitals do much in dealing with the aftermath of violence, and fewer still have invested in programs that improve wellbeing of staff to help them manage adversity before it is too late.

Current solutions fall short—EAPs are underused or used as last ditch efforts, trainings for anything other than clinical skills get canceled or put off, and HR is viewed as a place to go only when hired or leaving the organization.

Yes, there are many things hospital staff need regular training on. Credentials, new therapies, protocols, EHRs; those training requirements are important. But we can do more. We can help strengthen resilience, so that nurses and doctors are equipped to cope with adversity when it comes. We can protect time to practice mindfulness and tap back into the joy of working in healthcare and helping others. We can help administrators mitigate chronic stress, which includes the stress of training for workplace violence. We can invest in enterprise-wide wellbeing and create a shared culture of supportiveness.

We can protect our helpers and healers. It’s overdue.

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