Brief Mindfulness Program Reduces Healthcare Workers’ Stress
Tuesday, January 5, 2021
Typical mindfulness programs can involve attending up to 30 hours of classes, but a new IRP study suggests that just seven and a half hours of in-class instruction could provide the same benefits for healthcare workers’ mental well-being.
While working in healthcare can be extremely rewarding, it is also undoubtedly stressful. In particular, the COVID-19 pandemic has had severe repercussions on the mental health of medical professionals, as doctors and nurses struggle to care for unprecedented numbers of sick patients. Fortunately, new NIH research suggests that a relatively brief workplace mindfulness program can reduce stress and anxiety in healthcare workers.1
The stress of high-stakes medical procedures and emotional interactions with patients and family members who are going through terrible challenges can be a great burden on healthcare workers. If left unaddressed, this strain can degrade physical health and cause mental health problems like anxiety, depression, and — in extreme cases — suicide.
“In the U.S., we lose about the equivalent of two to three medical school classes each year from suicide,” says Ann Berger, M.D., the chief of the Pain and Palliative Care Service at the NIH Clinical Center and the new study’s senior author. “This was a big issue before COVID, and then COVID hit and now there’s a lot of talk about the mental health of healthcare workers being the ‘new pandemic’ after we get through this one.”
One promising approach for helping medical professionals is to provide them with mindfulness training, which teaches them to pay close attention to the present moment intentionally and without judgment. This helps them better manage the challenges of their profession, thereby improving both their mental health and the quality of their work.2,3 However, many mindfulness initiatives require a large time investment, with typical programs requiring eight weekly classes lasting two or three hours, not to mention daily practice outside of class. For people who are already stressed and working long hours, participating in these sorts of programs may not be feasible.
Workplace stress has long been recognized as an issue for medical professionals, and the COVID-19 pandemic has made the problem considerably worse.
In a step towards solving this problem, a team of researchers led by Dr. Berger decided to test whether a significantly less time-intensive mindfulness program could improve the mental well-being of healthcare workers at the NIH Clinical Center. The group designed a five-week program in which participants attended one 90-minute mindfulness training during the work day each week. The classes were offered in 2017 and 2018 and led by the study’s first author, Rezvan Ameli, an IRP clinical psychologist and mindfulness instructor. The program also provided resources to facilitate at-home practice and set up a buddy system to establish a sense of community among participants.
“Time matters and people are so busy, and I didn’t want people to have to take classes outside of work hours because you’re telling stressed individuals who are already not available to their families to go take 30 hours of additional classes,” explains Dr. Ameli. “That adds to their stress, and we want to subtract from it, so I thought providing classes during work hours could be a very important contribution to the employees.”
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After spending just seven and a half hours in class over the course of the five-week program, the participants reported feeling significantly lower levels of stress and anxiety and more positive emotions compared to before they took part in the program. Their stress and anxiety levels after completing the program were also lower than the study’s control group, which consisted of individuals who were on the program’s waitlist. Importantly, these benefits persisted two months after the program ended, and at that point participants also reported a greater inclination towards mindfulness and increased incorporation of mindfulness into their day-to-day lives compared to before the program. Overall, the results suggest that mindfulness programs can stimulate lasting improvements in the mental well-being of healthcare workers even with a substantially reduced time commitment.
IRP clinical psychologist Rezvan Ameli, who led the mindfulness classes examined in the new study, guides a virtual mindfulness session that took place earlier this year.
While healthcare settings work out how to implement similar programs of their own, Dr. Ameli and Dr. Berger are turning their attention to combining mindfulness training with experiences that take place in natural settings like gardens or forests. To that end, they are planning to collaborate with a non-profit organization that recently began offering ‘nature adventures’ like hiking, biking, and rock climbing to healthcare workers feeling overworked and burned out by the COVID-19 health crisis. The study will examine whether providing participants in the nature program with audio tapes that teach mindfulness might enhance the outdoor experiences’ mental health benefits.
“Nature is very healing, so these programs are excellent tools, but you might get immersed in a three-day program and feel great and then you get home and it’s the same old story,” says Dr. Ameli. “The question is whether adding a mindfulness component not only adds to the experience but also helps maintain the gains it causes.”
If you or someone you know is in crisis and needs immediate support or intervention, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255), or text the Crisis Text Line (text HELLO to 741741). Both services are free and available 24 hours a day, seven days a week. You can call for yourself or on behalf of a friend. If the situation is potentially life-threatening, call 911 or go — or assist a friend to go — to a hospital emergency room.
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 Effect of a Brief Mindfulness-Based Program on Stress in Health Care Professionals at a US Biomedical Research Hospital: A Randomized Clinical Trial. Ameli R, Sinaii N, West CP, Luna MJ, Panahi S, Zoosman M, Rusch HL, Berger A. JAMA Netw Open. 2020 Aug;3(8):e201324. doi: 10.1001/jamanetworkopen.2020.13424.
 Association of an educational program in mindful communication with burnout, empathy, and attitudes among primary care physicians. Krasner MS, Epstein RM, Beckman H, Suchman AL, Chapman B, Mooney CJ, Quill TE. JAMA. 2009 Sep 23;302(12):1284-1293. doi: 10.1001/jama.2009.1384.
 Physician Burnout, Well-being, and Work Unit Safety Grades in Relationship to Reported Medical Errors. Tawfik DS, Profit J, Morgenthaler TI, Satele DV, Sinsky CA, Dyrbye LN, Tutty MA, West CP, Shanafelt TD. Mayo Clin Proc. 2018 Nov;93(11):1571-1580. doi: 10.1016/j.mayocp.2018.05.014.