Patient Safety: 5 Ways Stress Can Impact Patient Safety

Stress is an all-too-common problem in the healthcare sector. Unfortunately, doctors, nurses and other healthcare professionals experience stress every day due to long hours, heavy workloads, bureaucracy and the emotional nature of the job. Burnout is prevalent among healthcare professionals, and it can erode the quality of patient care. Stressed-out and exhausted workers are significantly more likely to make mistakes and deliver sub-par care. In addition to lowering patient satisfaction, errors and lower-quality care put their health and safety at risk.

Ways Stress Can Impact Patient Safety 1

Stress impacts patient safety in numerous ways, and it can have devastating consequences for healthcare providers and patients alike. Whether you are working in healthcare or studying to become a physician, nurse, etc., understanding the impact of stress and burnout is crucial. Reach on to discover a few of the many ways stress can impact patient safety.

The Effects of Stress and Exhaustion

Stressed and exhausted healthcare workers commonly feel disconnected from their work. They may also feel less effective or like they are not making a meaningful difference in their patients’ lives. They lace up their men’s nursing shoes and go to work each day, but they often feel like they are just “going through the motions.” And providers experiencing those feelings are less likely to provide the gold standard of safe, high-quality care.

This, of course, leads to an increased risk for patients. Instead of engaging with patients and paying close attention to their situation, symptoms and other factors, stressed providers often overlook important details. Or their decreased vigilance may prevent them from detecting a potential problem or cause them to make a mistake.

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Direct Impact of Provider Stress on Patient Safety

Due to stress, healthcare workers experiencing burnout often inadvertently jeopardize their patients’ safety. Some of the most common ways in which stress impacts patient safety and care include:

  1. Decreased Empathy

Stressed and overworked healthcare workers may have a hard time showing their patients empathy. When they feel unimportant, they might project those feelings onto their patients, as well. In time, decreased empathy can get to an extreme point where the worker sees patients as numbers instead of actual humans.

Decreased empathy puts patients at risk because it takes the human element out of provider-patient interactions. It can prevent nurses and doctors from listening carefully and doing what’s best for their patients too.

Ways Stress Can Impact Patient Safety 2

  1. Increased Staff Turnover

Stressed-out healthcare workers are more likely to leave their jobs than those who aren’t dealing with burnout. Many leave their high-stress jobs in favor of positions in other healthcare facilities, and others leave the profession altogether. Either way, frequent turnover leads to staff shortages. And when there isn’t enough staff to adequately care for patients, the quality of care diminishes. Plus, staff shortages lead to overscheduling, which leads to burnout. It’s a vicious cycle that’s extremely difficult for organizations to escape.

  1. Higher Risk of Provider Errors

High stress levels and stressful workplaces make it much harder to focus and pay close attention to detail. It is incredibly easy to miss things when burnout and exhaustion take hold, and when that happens, mistakes are bound to happen. Whether its an incorrect medication dosage, a misread lab report or any other type of error, mistakes caused by stress sometimes prove fatal for patients.

  1. Poor Mental Health

Stress and exhaustion cause anxiety, depression and other mental health issues in healthcare workers. And, of course, poor mental health makes it difficult for anyone to perform at their personal best. For healthcare providers in particular, though, it can make it nearly impossible to focus on delivering quality patient care.

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Patients receiving care from practitioners struggling with mental health issues are more likely to face safety issues. Additionally, the worker’s negative demeanor could impact the patient’s ability to feel positive about their situation or recover quickly.

  1. Decreased Patient Engagement

It goes hand in hand with decreased empathy, but decreased patient engagement is another common problem for stressed-out healthcare workers. Nurses and other professionals who are exhausted and overworked are less likely to have positive engagements with their patients. Instead of providing one-on-one care and treating every patient as an individual, they’re more likely to rush through rounds and offer minimal personal interaction.

This affects patient safety in multiple ways. First, a healthcare professional who isn’t engaging with their patients is more likely to overlook things. Second, patients who don’t feel like their healthcare team is engaging with them sufficiently are less likely to ask questions. They’re also less likely to mention things like new or worsening symptoms if they sense that a doctor or nurse is busy or stressed.

Overcoming Stress as a Healthcare Professional

Overcoming Stress as a Healthcare Professional

As a healthcare professional, you’ll never have the luxury of a stress-free job. That doesn’t mean that every day spent at work in women’s scrub tops needs to leave you feeling burned out and run down, though.

Many healthcare organizations have support programs to help staff members struggling with stress and burnout. If such programs are available to you, take full advantage of them.

Make time for self-care too. Participate in your favorite hobbies, spend time with loved ones and take time to unwind while you are off the clock. And use your vacation time! Getting away for a few days (or even enjoying a quiet stay-cation at home) alleviates stress and can pull you back from the brink of burnout.

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Stress is unavoidable in healthcare professions, and it can put patients’ safety in jeopardy. Learning to mitigate stress and avoid burnout is crucial in providing consistent, high-quality care and doing what’s best for your patients.

If you feel overly stressed and it’s getting in the way of your job performance, seek help from your employer. Most organizations provide assistance for employees in these situations. Talking to a trusted mentor is an excellent choice too. Whatever you do, taking steps to overcome your stress is vital and reduces your likelihood of making mistakes that could put your patients’ safety at risk.


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