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A matter of wellness: Why health workers need a Professional Pause

Every first Tuesday of the month, HopeHealth social worker Eileen Pinoos takes a break from zig-zagging up and down the state of Rhode Island, logs onto her virtual Professional Pause group, and catches her breath. Literally.

“You put the work on hold for an hour. You’re left with you, the person, and the effects of your work on you,” says Ellen. “You have a space to pause, breathe, and talk about what’s affecting you.”

“It’s kind of like a reset button,” she says.

The proven power of the “well-being debriefing”

Healthcare work is a special calling, and the professionals who answer it are known for being especially dedicated.

“Every day, we help patients make life-changing decisions about life and death situations. It sounds dramatic, but it’s true,” says Palliative Care Program manager Maria Appenfeller, RN. “Either we become hardened to the work, or we continue to be compassionate. The only way to stay compassionate, and still be healthy, is to have a space to talk about it.”

To create that space, HopeHealth launched the Professional Pause program in 2021. Once a month, small groups of colleagues meet virtually for a one-hour “well-being debriefing.”

It’s a simple but proven technique for reducing stress and burnout among healthcare workers: Acknowledge, together, the personal impact of their work.

“It’s an opportunity to feel heard, seen and validated by colleagues who are having a shared experience with you.” – Meredith Sinel, Chaplain, LICSW, social work and chaplains manager

Sometimes, the discussion revolves around a specific topic, like grief, moral distress or compassion fatigue. Other times, the conversation goes where the group leads it, with the guidance of a trained peer facilitator.

Participants might share how it feels to talk about their job — or not — with the other people in their lives, like spouses or friends. They might look at what they do when they get home after a shift to refuel and take care of themselves. They have a safe, reflective space to talk about work experiences that are difficult.

Some groups incorporate breathing exercises or a brief meditation. All of them create deeper connections between colleagues, who offer each other support and suggestions.

“Our colleagues are usually the best teachers about strategies to cope with patient- and family-related stress,” says PediPal manager Lindsay Coe, MSW, one of Professional Pause’s co-creators. “They’re also the best validators, because they’re working through it too.”

Whether participants chime in or not, sometimes the greatest benefit is simply showing up.

“For some people, it’s the one hour of the month they allow to give to themselves — even if it means sitting in silence and listening without thinking about what’s next, or when to document,” says Lindsay.

For care teams, an extra — and essential — wellness benefit

“After a Professional Pause, I’m more centered,” says Eileen. “It helps me think about how I fit into my different teams, and to process some of my feelings and thoughts. I realize that whatever I’m experiencing, it’s not just me.”

While many healthcare systems offer resources like a support helpline for staff, few set aside paid time — like HopeHealth does for Professional Pause — for employees to focus on their wellness together.

“I think it says a lot that HopeHealth is investing time and resources for this program,” says Maria. “It shows that this isn’t just a place to work to receive a paycheck. It’s a place that values us as human beings.”

When she’s encouraging her teams to attend Professional Pause, Maria often points out that it’s similar to taking advantage of health insurance benefits. (“If you can get free contact lenses, why wouldn’t you? This is the same thing.”) She asks them to schedule it into their calendar, just like they would schedule a patient visit or a clinical debriefing. Sometimes, she’ll appeal to their sense of duty: It’s for the sake of their patients, as well as themselves.

“In healthcare, it’s easy to feel like there’s never enough time to get it all done,” she says. “But you’re really not going to get it done if you’re not healthy.”

Volunteer facilitators strengthen & lead peer support

Last fall, when HopeHealth announced its plans for Professional Pause, more than 20 employees across the organization raised their hand to help run it — a commitment that includes full-day training and the long-term work of leading a group.

“Our peer facilitators have made this program possible,” says Deanna Upchurch, MA, director of community and clinical outreach services, who oversees Professional Pause. “By sharing their time and skills, they’re helping our care teams reduce burnout, deepen their relationships, and focus on well-being.”

Amid the many demands on healthcare workers, that peer support is invaluable.

“In the work that we do, there are experiences that bring you to your knees, then amazing interactions that bring you to tears of gratitude — from A to Z and back again, all within a couple hours,” says social work and chaplains manager Meredith Sinel, LICSW, another of the program’s co-creators. “It’s a whole day of rollercoasters. That can be hard. But if you go on a rollercoaster with a friend, it’s easier. That’s Professional Pause.”

HopeHealth appreciates and cares for our employees by promoting a culture of wellbeing. Interested in moving your career to the next level at a heath care organization offering comprehensive benefits designed for your overall work/life balance? Check out our current open positions here.

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