At every stage of the journey, and at every level within the field, medical professionals are stressed. Med school is considered one of the most stressful and most challenging education opportunities available, to the point where coping strategies and stress management are often part of the curriculum. And even after years of experience, nurses and doctors report higher-than-average levels of stress, anxiety, and dissatisfaction with life. And despite often representing the top 1 percent of earners, nearly half of all doctors are unhappy with their careers.
So why is this the case, and why is it worth paying attention to? More importantly, what can we do to improve the situation?
Sources of Stress
Let’s take a look at the main sources of stress that nurses and doctors have to deal with:
- Knowledge demands. Doctors and nurses are responsible for knowing a practical library of information. Depending on their field of specialty, they may need to be at least passingly familiar with all the major systems of the body. Throughout school, that translates to hours of studying, and in practice, that means constantly calling on banks of old information.
- Competition. Despite a high demand for nurses and doctors, it’s still a highly competitive career field. It’s hard to get into med school. It’s hard to get better grades than your peers. It’s hard to get into good internship and rotation programs, and it’s hard to get good jobs. That adds up to a ton of stress from day one.
- Time requirements. The hours required of doctors, nurses, and medical professionals in training is insane. During school, they need to spend hours a day studying, and in the field, they’re sometimes called upon to work long shifts without breaks. If there’s an emergency situation, they could be called in unexpectedly, resulting in even more hours worked—and a terrible work-life balance.
- High stakes. The profession is also stressful because of the high stakes associated with it. While other professions may be stressful because of the amount of money on the line, in the medical profession, lives are in the balance. Being responsible for saving someone’s life is a ton of pressure—even if you’re used to it. Plus, if you do something wrong, you could be liable for a practice-shattering malpractice suit.
- Ongoing changes. Learning basic anatomy and medical care isn’t enough. Our body of available medical knowledge is constantly changing, which means doctors and nurses need to be reading all the time to stay up-to-date.
- Emotional demands. Being a doctor or nurse also requires significant emotional energy. You’re forced to stay calm during intense situations. You’re forced to be empathetic while still being professional after witnessing someone’s death or while delivering bad news to a patient. Over the years, that can seriously add up.
- Little control. You may also have little control over your job. You can’t just pick and choose which patients to work with, and you may have no control over emergency call-ins.
- Minimal support. On top of everything else, doctors and nurses have little support. Hospitals don’t have onsite therapists to help these professionals cope with the job, and there isn’t much spare time during the workday to mutually coach and support each other.
This is also about more than the subjective feelings of healthcare practitioners. Studies show that stress can severely and negatively affect job performance, meaning as nurses and doctors experience more stress without coping, healthcare provision gets worse.
So what can doctors and nurses do to mitigate the effects of stress throughout med school and in the field?
- Know the stakes going in. Before applying for med school, make yourself familiar with the level of stress you’ll experience on the job.
- Take control. Do what you can to take control of your career, setting hour own hours and drawing the line in your work-life balance. This isn’t always in your control, but there should be at least a few factors you can actively manipulate.
- Practice self-care. Take the time to care for yourself, taking vacations and time off when you need, making time for your friends and family, exercising, and meditating.
- Get support. It’s also important to get support however you can, whether it’s from friends and family, from therapists, or in support groups with other nurses and doctors.
- Accept mistakes. Mistakes can be devastating when the stakes are high—especially since the medical field tends to attract a lot of perfectionists. Learning to live with the mistakes you made is crucial if you’re going to cope with the stress of the job.
There’s no easy solution to the problem of stress in the medical field, but the more we raise our awareness, and the more actively we fight against it, the more progress we’re going to make. If you’re considering a career in the medical field, take the stress into consideration—and be a positive force for stress reduction in the field, if and when you can.