Health professions educators are navigating multiple roles in dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic. Many serve in clinical roles involving direct patient contact. Many serve in administrative roles making difficult decisions about how care will be delivered. And all serve as educators responsible for helping our trainees manage this stressful time.
There are many strategies educators can use to increase mental wellness for themselves, their colleagues, their loved ones, their trainees, and their patients. The strategies articulated below can be used by educators and trainees.
Develop structured daily routines: This includes setting wake up and sleep times, mealtimes, and exercise times. Practice sleep hygiene by setting bedtimes and liming screen time prior to going to sleep.
- Set realistic short-term and long-term goals: Schedule activities to achieve short- and long-term goals into your daily schedule. Reward yourself for accomplishing goals, including ones that are part of your daily routine, such as taking a shower. Schedule “down-time” for yourself, even if it is just a few minutes, and plan activities you enjoy.
- Take care of your physical health: Eat healthy food. Avoid excess caffeine, alcohol, and sweets. Exercise. There are many helpful and free online exercise videos.
- Limit news exposure: This includes limits on reading or watching the news and checking social media feeds. Set a daily time limit on exposure to the news. Look for positive news stories (e.g., neighbors helping neighbors).
- Stay connected with others: Schedule regular times to text, call, or videoconference with family and friends. These interactions can be short, but serve as an important way to maintain relationships.
- Be aware of your mindset: Acknowledge the uncertainty of the current situation and your emotions associated with this uncertainty. Focus your thoughts on what is in your control and accept what cannot be changed. Discuss this mindset with faculty and learners. Assume the best in people. This is a new situation and approach situations with the assumption that people are trying the best they can to meet all the needs in their personal and professional lives.
- Challenge negative thoughts: These thoughts can include “The world is unsafe” and “I am not doing enough to help.” Errors in thinking are common. Be aware of thoughts that include absolute terms such as all, none, should, never, always. These words may be signs that the thought has an error in it. Once you notice one of these words in a thought, stop, and examine if the thought is true.
- Engage in new hobbies: This might include cooking, reading, painting or music. Ask trainees what new skills they would like to learn.
- Regularly practice mindfulness, relaxation, meditation, deep breathing, or yoga: Set an alarm to remind yourself to engage in these practices, even for a minute or two at a time. Start work meetings with brief relaxation/stress management exercises. These can be as simple as taking several deep breaths or listening to music for a minute or two. Model these behaviors for trainees.
- Engage in gratitude: Write down and think about 3 things in your life you are grateful for at set times during the day, such as at bedtime. Express your gratefulness and thanks to others.
- Consult with peers, colleagues, and fellow educators: Work together to identify best practices to approach challenges. You do not need to solve all problems by yourself. If you have the time and expertise, share your knowledge in online teaching and supervising with fellow educators.
Trainees can also benefit from the strategies identified above. Some other specific strategies for helping trainees include
- Consider how trainees can experience post-traumatic growth following the pandemic: This will involve developing and emphasizing activities with trainees that focus on appreciation of life, relationships with others, new possibilities in life, and personal strength.
- Provide a safe environment for trainees to communicate their concerns and worries: Trainees may be worried about their training, finances, family members, or career planning.
- Encourage trainees to talk with each other and maintain their social relationships. Identify training program resources, such as a paid video conferencing account or computer headsets, that can help trainees facilitate these connections. Outreach to trainees who live alone, have medical issues, or have few community connections.
- Seek out professional mental health services if needed: Provide faculty and trainees with local mental health resources they can connect with.
David Topor, Ph.D., MS-HPEd.
David R. Topor, Ph.D., MS-HPEd is a clinical psychologist and health professions educator at VA Boston Healthcare System and an Associate Professor in the Department of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School. David currently holds the position of Associate Director of Healthcare Professional Education at VA Boston. David’s areas of professional interest include faculty development, faculty and trainee wellness, and interprofessional education. David can be contacted via email.