Simple ways you can support your hospital staff’s well-being during times of crisis

Your hospital staff always works hard, but now they’re likely doing so under more emotional and psychological stress. Even if you’re not in the thick of the COVID-19 battle, flooded with patients like facilities are in New York or New Jersey, there’s a fear that it could happen. That we-could-be-next feeling is hard to shake.

While there are extra precautions going into making sure the virus doesn’t spread, that stress could be weighing heavy on the minds of your nurses, doctors, and everyone who shows up to make your hospital function. “They’re under a significant amount of stress, and that impacts their immune system, which is the last thing you want any sort of caregiver to be compromising,” says Amanda Radochonski, EXOS’ senior director of health care business and operations. “It becomes more important to focus on recovery.”

So how can you support the health and well-being of health care workers right now? It’s the simple things that may make the biggest difference. Share these techniques with your staff and schedule time to talk about them as a team.

1. Stretches you can do anywhere

There may not be time for a full workout or space for group stretching to relieve tension right now. However, Jenny Noiles is the EXOS performance director at Mayo Clinic Sports Medicine in Minnesota, and she has two quick stretches you and your staff can do anywhere for a refresh. They’re simple movements that hit multiple areas at once.

The first is a single-leg glute, hamstring, and calf stretch. “Whether they’re on their feet all day or sitting more than usual, this stretch will provide the backside of the body with the relief it needs,” she says. How to do it:

  1. From a standing position, lightly push both hands down on a chair or desk. This will activate the pillar (the muscles that support your hips, torso, and shoulders).
  2. Extend the left leg forward and straighten, heel on the ground with toes toward the sky.
  3. Slightly bend the right leg and push hips back. Hold this position for three seconds and then stand tall. Repeat on both sides, 10 reps total, five on each side.
  4. This stretch should be felt in the glutes, hamstrings, and the calf of the front leg as well as the triceps and pillar.

The second movement is a side stretch with rotation that you can do in any doorway. “This stretch will open the chest, elongate the spine, stretch the posterior shoulder, stretch the anterior hip, and wake up the pillar,” says Noiles. How to do it:

  1. Stand tall near the side of a doorway without hinges.
  2. Slowly crawl the left arm up the wall (imagine hanging from a monkey bar).
  3. Lightly press into the wall with the palm (this will activate the pillar).
  4. Step back with the left leg into a high lunge. The stretch should be felt in the side body and chest. Challenge the position by bringing the left knee closer to the ground.
  5. While holding that position, stretch the right arm up and to the right. Lead with the thumb and look at the right hand. Maintain posture and limit any movement in the legs.
  6. Hold the end position for three seconds and then return the arm to its starting position.
  7. Stand tall. Repeat on both sides for five reps each.

Research shows that controlled breathing helps reduce stress and anxiety, rooting you in the present moment.    

2. Breathing techniques

There’s a reason that the saying “take a deep breath” is the first thing you think to say to someone when they’re upset. Research shows that controlled breathing helps reduce stress and anxiety, rooting you in the present moment. Tiffany Grimm is a director on the performance team at EXOS, a registered yoga instructor, and a certified personal trainer, and she has two suggestions for breathing techniques that can help your staff feel more grounded during these unpredictable times.

The first is 6-4-10 breathing. Inhale for six counts, hold for four, exhale for 10. “Exhaling longer than you inhale and holding at the top of your breath activates the parasympathetic nervous system, which in turn reduces anxiety,” says Grimm. Her second suggestion is balanced breathing, also known as alternate nostril breathing. It helps calm and strengthen the nervous system. Here’s how it’s done:

  1. Sitting (or standing) in a comfortable position, place index and middle fingertips (from right hand) between eyebrows.
  2. Exhale completely.
  3. Close off the left nostril with the ring finger while inhaling through the right nostril.
  4. Then close off the right nostril with the thumb before you exhale, and exhale through the left nostril.
  5. Keep the right nostril closed, inhale through left nostril.
  6. Then close off the left nostril, and exhale through the right.
  7. Continue to repeat this process for a few minutes until you feel relaxed and calm.

3. Simple, clean snacking

Vending machines with processed and sugary snacks may be tempting in stressful, busy moments, so it goes a long way to supply healthier alternatives in the break room. “The benefits of fiber, vitamin A, vitamin C, omega-3s, and probiotics will go much further in terms of keeping your staff healthy, focused, and energized,” says EXOS dietitian Paige Crawford. Here are some foods that pack these nutrients:

  • Probitoics: Consider stocking your break room refrigerators with Greek yogurt cups, kefir, and kombucha. According to Crawford, probiotics help support gut health, immunity, and stress reactions.
  • Omega-3s: Think trail mix and nut butters that include flaxseed and walnuts. Canned salmon or tuna are also great sources. While omega-3s are commonly linked to heart health, they may have additional benefits that are even more relevant right now. In one study, omega-3s reduced anxiety symptoms in participants by 20%. Another study found the consuming fatty fish with omega-3s helped improve sleep quality and overall daily functioning.
  • Vitamin A: Canned salmon and tuna is also a great source of vitamin A. Karla Wright, EXOS senior director of nutrition, says that vitamin A helps your body maintain the mucus barriers in your eyes, lungs, and gut that trap infectious agents. It also supports white blood cell production which helps clear pathogens from your bloodstream. Other food sources include hard-boiled eggs, sweet potato, squash, dark leafy greens, carrots, mango, cantaloupe, grapefruit, and nectarines. It’s not ideal to be sharing and touching produce right now, but an alternative is to supply individual fruit and veggies pouches that contain a variety of these.
  • Vitamin C: We all know that vitamin C helps build a healthy, strong immune system. Sources include citrus and tropical fruits, strawberries, cherries, peppers, and dark and leafy greens.

In one study, when participants were sleep-deprived for just one night, they experienced a 70% decrease in the cells that play an important role in fighting off tumors and viral diseases.    

4. Pre-shift and post-shift meditations

It’s even more evident in times like this that we can’t control everything, and we can’t make the source of our stress go away. The one thing we can do is control our response to stress, and meditation and mindset practices are a way to do that. They don’t have to be long. Five minutes here and there can do the trick.

Grimm, who recently led a meditation circle for nurse practitioners working in hospitals and clinics, says that many of them are looking for techniques to feel more grounded right now. So even if you think your staff may not be into mediation, encourage them to give it a try.

A pre-shift grounding meditation:

  1. Stand in a spot inside, or even outside with bare feet on the grass.
  2. Exhale for nine seconds, imagining roots growing from the feet into the ground like roots from a tree.
  3. Then, inhale for nine seconds, imagining a beam of light extending from the heart, up through the crown of the head to the sky.
  4. On the next exhale, imagine a current of energy running from the sky down through your body through the earth.
  5. On the next inhale, imagine a current of energy running from the earth up through the body into the sky.
  6. Continue for three more nine-second cycles of breath.
  7. At the end, pause and acknowledge that you are grounded, strong, and protected.

A post-shift clearing meditation:

  1. When you’re taking a shower after you get home, imagine that the water is white light coming over your body and washing any negative emotions or thoughts as well as any clingy germs.
  2. Imagine it all going down the drain.
  3. Repeat until you feel like you are clear from your day.

Additionally, here’s a five-minute body scan technique that can help your staff refresh and reset.

5. Sleep resources

Sleep is a major player in helping your immune system function well. In one study, when participants were sleep-deprived for just one night, they experienced a 70% decrease in the cells that play an important role in fighting off tumors and viral diseases. Further, another study found that when limited to just six hours of sleep instead of eight hours, hundreds of genes linked to immune health turn off and decrease their activity.

So how can you help your staff sleep better between long shifts and odd hours? A tech-free bedtime ritual with some of the breathing and meditation techniques above can help. Remind your team that a cool and dark bedroom helps by decreasing core body temperature and limiting light exposure. They should avoid alcohol and caffeine near their bedtimes. And a breathing exercise like 6-3-6 breathing also helps signal the body to relax (inhale for six seconds, hold for three, exhale for six).

Need more support to help your hospital staff stay physically and mentally strong? Get daily mindset, nutrition, movement, and recovery sessions and tips (available for all) at exosathome.com.

About the Author

Catherine Conelly

Catherine Conelly is a California-based health, fitness, and lifestyle writer.

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