Mindfulness: The quiet revolution

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There is a quiet revolution going on at Hamilton Health Sciences. The weapon of choice? Stopping and breathing.

Health care workers are extraordinary—they embrace those who suffer, while the rest of our culture denies the reality of illness and death. However, extending mind, body and spirit everyday to support patients and families in heart wrenching situations, and working to improve care in a complex and chaotic system, takes its toll.

Studies confirm that many helping professionals experience high levels of compassion fatigue. Compassion fatigue refers to the profound emotional and physical exhaustion that occurs over the course of a career when workers are not adequately refueled or recharged to meet the needs of their roles, colleagues and patients.

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Over the past three years, Hamilton Health Sciences has partnered with the McMaster University Program for Faculty Development (PFD) to offer staff, physicians, students and faculty access to courses designed to alleviate compassion fatigue and promote the resilience of people who work in healthcare. Since its inception in 2011, over 200 staff and physicians at HHS have participated in the “Discovering Resilience” program.

“The first step to alleviating compassion fatigue is awareness of one’s physical and mental state. Awareness is cultivated through mindfulness, which means bringing one’s full attention to the present moment, in a non-judgemental way,” says Dr. Andrea Frolic, director of the office of clinical & organizational ethics at HHS. “It sounds simple, but our energies are pulled in so many directions, it is often hard to focus on the here and now. Mindfulness requires practice, and these courses are designed to support frontline care providers and leaders at HHS to develop a repertoire of practices to reduce stress and enhance resilience.”

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Through funds provided through HHS’ new strategic plan, one goal of which is to “Be the organization of choice for talented people”, various mindfulness courses are offered at significantly discounted rates to HHS staff and physicians. One such course, Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR), provides an in-depth introduction to mindfulness practices and how they can be applied in the clinical setting.  In addition, staff and physicians are welcome to attend free weekly drop-in, 30 minute sessions called “Mindfulness for Lunch” offered across HHS’ hospital sites.

“MBSR is an evidence-based therapeutic protocol that has been demonstrated to enhance mental health and well-being, and relieve many physical conditions, such as chronic pain,” says Dr. Frolic. “It teaches participants a range of practices, such as breathing meditation, gentle stretching and mindful listening, designed to enhance one’s connection to self and others. Past participants report significant benefits, including better sleep, less anxiety, greater enjoyment of work and improved relationships. These practices are simple, anyone can learn them, but they are truly revolutionary in turning the tide from burn-out to resilience.”

Bonnie Buchko, a physiotherapist on the clinical neurosciences unit at Hamilton General Hospital has completed the MBSR program and says it covered many concepts that have supported her day-to-day work.

“Even when there isn’t time for a formal break, being mindful allows me to take a break from the sometimes chaotic ward by stopping my mind, even for half a minute,” says Bonnie. “This helps me recharge and be able to enter my next patient encounter with greater focus and presence. I’m more able to give my patients the opportunity to express what is important to them and what will help them.”

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