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Peer support ‘can reduce healthcare burnout’

Study of frontline medics shows reduction in mental health stress

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Peer support can help reduce stress and burnout among healthcare workers, a new study has indicated. 

Those working in health and social care routinely face the challenges of long and stressful hours at work – a situation exacerbated significantly during the COVID-19 pandemic, when they also faced threat to their own health – and burnout poses a risk to many.

In a new pilot study, the feasibility and effectiveness of peer support for those working in healthcare is examined – and results showed the potential benefit in terms of reduction of mental health stress. 

The researchers, from the Regenstrief Institute and Indiana University School of Medicine, assessed change in symptoms of distress, depression and burnout before and after participating in virtual, group-based peer support for eight weeks. 

While historically, medical staff have low uptake of mental health resources, 86 per cent of the doctors participating in the study indicated they would recommend peer support groups to a friend or colleague.

“Emergency departments have always been high stress environments and COVID at least doubled the stress,” said study co-author and national leader in the study of medical symptoms Dr Kurt Kroenke. 

“Stress on the job can lead to burnout and other negative consequences. It’s an important question as to how we can help our healthcare workers under high stress conditions like COVID.”

The pilot study reported a trend toward reduction of psychologic distress and burnout symptoms associated with working in emergency care when physicians came together virtually in peer support groups.

“That emergency department (ED) physicians were receptive to peer-support groups and found them helpful can be relevant to other clinicians working in the ED, as well as other stressful medical environments such as intensive care units,” said Dr. Kroenke. 

“The physicians in our study came together in a group only a handful of times. This is a fairly low-cost intervention that healthcare systems could provide. 

“Even with the pandemic now winding down, I think it could be beneficial for healthcare workers in stressful situations across the board.”

During this pilot study, short versions of depression and anxiety screening tools co-developed by Dr Kroenke, as well as burnout measurement screeners, were administered to ED physicians and their responses analyzsd, revealing evidence of a trend toward decreased symptoms.

The study authors conclude: “Promising signs of improvement in distress, anxiety, depression, and burn out symptoms warrant additional studies with larger sample sizes and more robust research designs to establish the evidence base for peer support in the physician population.”

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