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This award-winning blog supplements the articles in Hospital Infection Control & Prevention.

It’s Not the Stress, It’s the Unhealthy Coping

By Gary Evans, Medical Writer

Stress is not only unhealthy in the immediate moment for healthcare workers, it also leads to poor coping behavior that exacerbates the problem, researchers report.

They found that nurses with high stress and poor coping devices had difficulty with patients, working in teams, communicating with co-workers, and performing their jobs efficiently.

“We found in our study that stress alone does not kill you,” says Jagdish Khubchandani, PhD, co-author of the study and a health science professor at Ball State University in Muncie, IN. “It is stress coupled with bad coping that kills people. In every profession there is stress, but the moment you realize you are not able to manage it well you start coping poorly.”

The study found that 92% of the 120 nurses surveyed reported moderate to very high stress levels. In addition 78% slept less than eight hours per night, and only 31% exercised regularly. Almost a fourth of respondents met the criteria for binge drinking, and 70% said they consumed more junk food when under stress. Overall, 63% said they used food as a coping mechanism.

“Healthcare professionals are trained how to take care of people and have the education to do that, but we are not trained on how to deal with our own stress and our own health," Khubchandani says. “They teach you about clinical skills, but they don’t tell you how to deal with supervisors, conflict, and the constant push from the patients. People get stressed, and they practice unhealthy behaviors because they are not trained to deal with all of these challenges.”

The authors also reported the effects of shift work, as nurses who worked eight hours weighed an average of 16 pounds less than nurses who worked twelve hours. In addition, nurses who worked full-time were heavier than their part-time counterparts. A similar weight increase was found in nurses who worked in medical/surgical departments or an ICU when compared with nurses in other departments.

“Nurses' body weights are likely influenced by their eating habits at work,” the authors reported. “Two of five nurses reported that they eat less healthy at work than they do at home. Barriers to healthy eating at work included limited choices of healthy foods, too much work to do during their shift -- not enough time to eat healthy -- and the cafeteria being closed during their shift.”

The findings suggest that wellness and health promotion programs are needed to counter stress and instill healthy coping habits. Nurses can help by proactively asking for resources to put such programs in place.