Building Healthcare Worker Resilience and Optimism in 2021

Last year was incredibly challenging for healthcare workers, especially those in large cities, rural healthcare centers and senior living facilities everywhere. COVID-19’s psychic toll left leaders and employees physically and emotionally exhausted. And projections about the pandemic’s path, despite the advent of successful vaccines, make it difficult to approach 2021 with a positive outlook.

Difficult, but not impossible.

We asked mental health experts how we can cultivate optimism and resilience for this new year and beyond.

Acknowledge Getting Through

“In times of struggle, we can get hyper-focused on what’s bringing us down, but even a little bit of time appreciating our successes can do a lot to lift up our spirits and give us the energy to persevere,” says Alexandria, Va.-based psychologist Fox Vernon, PhD. “I’d take it a step forward to say it’s not just acknowledging that we made it through but celebrating all the things we did well.”

Natalie Dattilo, PhD, director of Psychology, Department of Psychiatry, Brigham & Women’s Hospital, agrees.

“Acknowledging that we made it through affirms that we are capable of doing hard things and have the ability to persevere, which is important for strengthening resilience and resolve,” says Datillo, who helps run the Brigham & Women’s Physician Mental Health Program. “This will be critical to remember as we endure the length of this crisis. Appreciate how different things have been, what we have overcome, and what you are most looking forward to doing again. “Let yourself visualize – whether it’s a vacation, a visit with loved ones, a return to normalcy or a sense of carefree living – it’s good to have things to look forward to, even while so many things still feel uncertain.”

Learn how to create a formal recognition program for your team.

Practice Gratitude

“It’s amazing how the simple act of gratitude focuses our attention on people and things in our lives that we really appreciate, and that, in and of itself, is enjoyable and energizing,” Vernon says. In fact, reams of research shows that showing gratitude has several positive associations with our outlook, sense of wellbeing and overall emotional health.

Datillo explains: “People who cultivate a sense of gratitude tend to be less reactive to negative events, less stressed, and more resilient in the face of setback. Gratitude practice often involves searching for the silver lining in any situation, which is an important part of meaning-making, post-traumatic growth and coping.”

Set Intentions and Goals

Something like “stay hydrated” may not feel meaningful, but when we’re under duress, even simple intentions and easily attainable goals give us a sense of control and achievement.

“Simple goals give us something we can do in the face of a daunting world,” Vernon notes. “Even the little bit we can do, whether it’s staying hydrated or getting a quick walk in, can go a long way to making us feel better.”

That’s not to say you can’t or shouldn’t set meatier goals. When doing so, Datillo, who is also an instructor at Harvard Medical School, recommends focusing on growth instead of change.

“We think of growth as a process with stops and starts, and as a mindset that’s more about the journey than the destination. This allows us to be more flexible and adjust our expectations over time. Having flexible expectations makes it easier for us to “go with the flow” and sets us up for success rather than disappointment.

Read up on the benefits for formal employee goal-setting.

Give Yourself and Others Grace

A positive attitude doesn’t mean overlooking the bad stuff. It means contextualizing it.

“Grace comes from remembering that we are all in this together, assuming good intent on the part of others, and recognizing that we are all just doing the best we can under very unusual and stressful circumstances,” Dattilo notes. “Extending compassion to ourselves and to others can help us reconnect with our common humanity, our common purpose, remember that we are stronger together, and we will get through this.”

Make it a Team Activity

These positivity practices don’t have to be limited to the individual. Involving others amplifies the benefits.

“Sharing with others what we appreciate about them is a great way to practice gratitude,” Vernon explains, “Similarly, it feels good to hear from others what they appreciate about us. A gratitude practice in a community can be amazingly powerful.”

That’s because these activities “help to strengthen a sense of community and cohesion, as well as build trust, which has important implications for care delivery, teamwork, and may help mitigate the effects of burnout and moral injury,” Datillo adds. You can even engage in these practices with your family.

Get tips for creating a culture of thanks.

Crafting a hopeful outlook for the year ahead is possible for all of us.

“Even if you weren’t born an optimist, you can still learn to think like one,” Dattilo concludes. “It won’t always come easy under the circumstances, but don’t give up. With deliberate and regular practice, you can develop a more positive perspective.” 

About Margot Carmichael Lester

Margot Carmichael Lester is a North Carolina-based business and brand journalist who has covered healthcare and staffing for more than 20 years. She also writes about moviemaking for the International Cinematographers Guild, specializing in action cinema, and co-authored the award-winning teen writing book, Be a Better Writer. She earned her BA in journalism from the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill and is a rabid Tar Heel basketball fan.