Mindfulness in Surgical Residents

By Dr. David Gregg, chief medical officer at StayWell

Burnout is an epidemic that is rapidly spreading for all types of health care employees. Surgical residents in particular have one of the higher rates with nearly 70% reporting feelings of burnout.

High turnover rates have led health care leaders to explore new and innovative ways to help alleviate stress, including an increased focus on mindfulness. Mindfulness is a type of meditation where individuals focus on being intensely aware of their thoughts and feelings in the moment, without interpretation or judgment. Practicing mindfulness often includes specific breathing methods, guided imagery, and other techniques to relax the body and mind while attempting to reduce stress levels.

Why should health care organizations continue to explore mindfulness? Several mainstream companies such as Google, General Mills, and Target have developed mindfulness-based offerings as part of their well-being programs. Here are three main benefits for health care organizations to consider.

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1. Better stress management

Stress is often amplified by work-related pressures—overwhelming workloads, long hours, not being able to take enough mental breaks. Nearly 80% of Americans say they experience stress during their daily lives.

Long-term stress can lead to significant health problems, including heart disease, stroke, diabetes, anxiety, insomnia, and more. Work-related stress brings additional ramifications, contributing to 120,000 deaths and costing employers around $190 billion in health care expenses each year.

As difficult as it might be for surgical residents to slow down and take breaks, early research has shown incorporating mindfulness techniques can have a positive influence on stress. A recent JAMA Network study of first-year surgical residents found that simply taking a modified mindfulness-based stress class was associated with lower stress, faster motor skills, and better self-awareness.

2. Improved mental and physical health

Along with a change in stress levels, mindfulness can have a positive effect on other physical and mental health areas. Mindfulness techniques have been used to help:

  • Lower blood pressure
  • Reduce chronic pain
  • Improve sleep
  • Boost the immune system
  • Treat depression
  • Overcome substance abuse
  • Reduce anxiety
  • Treat eating disorders

Additional results from a study focusing on health care worker burnout show while they appreciate the great meaning in their work, clinicians’ ability to disconnect and recharge may be even more critical than it is for others when it comes to how they view work environments and feel as employees.

3. Enhanced focus, memory, and thinking skills

Surgical residents not only require the knowledge to make it through their residency but the mental strength and resiliency to handle unique situations each day. Keeping intense focus, delivering specialty clinical care, and making meaningful connections with patients while being at your best can be challenging.

A main goal of mindfulness is to remain focused on the present and attempt to free our minds from past events or anxieties about the future. Practicing mindfulness helps achieve this and improves other cognitive functions (learning, attention, problem-solving, decision-making). While simple in practice, these benefits can lead to higher employee productivity and fewer critical errors for surgical residents. It also has the potential to reduce absences from work and job turnover.

Implementing more mindfulness options for surgical residents and other health care workers can help them better deal with stress, burnout, and lack of focus on the job.

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