Reducing Stress in the Radiology Reading Room

September 5, 2019

Nine tips for effectively managing stress.

Self-care and stress relief. These issues are becoming much more common conversation topics in radiology circles because they accompany another hot button issue-burnout. In today’s medical environment, it’s become increasingly critical for radiologists to find ways to mitigate the pressures they feel daily in the workplace.

Fortunately, according to industry experts, there are strategies providers can implement to reduce the myriad stresses they consistently encounter.

“Stress can’t be avoided,” says Gary Brown, PhD, a California-based licensed psychotherapist who specializes in stress management for medical professionals. “It’s not whether you’ll have it, it’s how you’ll deal with it.”

Having several coping mechanisms in place can dramatically decrease the impact that work-related stress can have on your personal and professional lives, he says.

The Overall Problem

While burnout isn’t a new topic in radiology, its impact does not appear to be diminishing, creating a growing need for stress relief.

“The pervasiveness of stress in the workplace is tremendous, and it’s expanding,” Brown says. “There are so many issues related to healthcare-the need to control costs, the need to see more patients, and an overall increase in volume and acuity.”

In fact, according to a 2019 Medscape report on burnout among radiologists, only 25% of providers report being very or extremely happy at work, and 53% indicate they’re happier outside the workplace. Among the survey respondents, 44% say they are experiencing burnout.

Related article: Provider Stress and Patient Safety

Those who feel affected say they are more likely to make unintended errors, to feel less motivated, and to become more exasperated with patients and peers. They attribute the problems to spending too much time at work, a lack of respect from patients and peers, insufficient reimbursement, a lack of autonomy, bureaucratic tasks, government regulation, a greater emphasis on profit over patients, and increased computerization.

If left unchecked, Brown says, providers face an increased risk of stress-related illnesses, as well as deleterious effects on their sleep and mood. They also chance becoming demoralized about their work altogether. Still, when faced with these ongoing pressures, only 10% of providers report seeking help, based on the Medscape survey’s findings.

Do-It-Yourself Stress Management

While professional counseling can be beneficial if you’re experiencing burnout, there are self-care tactics you can employ to help diminish the impacts, says Kees Kennedy, MPH, PhD, a mindfulness-based intervention specialist based in The Netherlands.

“It’s important to start managing your stress at the individual level,” he says. “It’s important to pay attention to mindfulness meditation, hobbies and interests, and taking care of your relationships with others.”

To maximize your control over your stress level, Brown adds, consider following these nine avenues.

1. Exercise 

When you start feeling yourself becoming more stressed, carve out time to invest in strenuous exercise that you enjoy. According to the Medscape report, only 35% of radiologists find time to work out at least four times a week. Finding time to work up a sweat can kick up your endorphins, Brown says, improving your mood and your productivity.

2. Structure time 

This can be easier said than done, Kennedy acknowledges, pointing out that most radiologists encounter not only a substantial stack of images to read when they come to work, but also the expectation that the work will be completed quickly. Still, Brown advises, try to divide your responsibilities into time slots. Doing so can break the work up into more manageable pieces and help you maintain a more normal schedule. “Figure out your management techniques,” Brown says. “Look at your workload and determine how much needs to get done right now and what doesn’t need to be handled right away. You have to prioritize.”

3. Talk 

Reach out to your family and friends to discuss what you’re feeling, and take time to open up to your colleagues, as well. Sharing your experiences creates a more open culture that can alleviate workplace stress all-around. Most importantly, do not isolate yourself. “Talking is the most healing thing,” Brown says. “There’s an old saying that ‘pain shared is pain halved.’”

4. Avoid substances 

It can be tempting to unwind at the end of the day with alcohol or some other substance, but resist any desire to do so. The effect is temporary and can lead to other problems, including negative impacts on your personal life, poor work performance, and potential loss of employment.

5. Embrace Off-Work Time 

Be sure you devote most of your time away from the reading room to actual rest and relaxation. Investing some time in chores or your “to-do” list is necessary, but don’t let it eat up every hour you’re off the clock. Vacations can be critically important, but only 43% of radiologists take three-to-four weeks off annually, according to the Medscape report.

6. Practice Good Health Hygiene

Taking care of your body is essential, Brown says. Sleep when you can for as long as you can. In addition, eat well-balanced meals, and eat regularly even if you don’t feel like it.

7. Write

Keep a journal, and record your feelings and frustrations. Getting the emotions down on paper can be an effective way of releasing the associated anxiety and stress. It can also be a good way to fill any hours plagued by sleeplessness, Brown says.

8. Practice Mindfulness

One of the most proven stress-relief strategies is mindfulness, including meditation and yoga, Kennedy says. These are great tactics away from the office, but you can fit them in while you’re at work, too. Take breaks between reading cases, and breathe deeply for a minute or two. It can also be effective to physically step away and walk around for a few minutes of meditation.

9. Step back

It’s easy to get caught up in the daily minutiae of your particular office or facility, Kennedy says, but concentrate on taking a step back at the end of every day to evaluate what’s happened. Take that time to assess your workload and interactions. Doing so will help you process your work day and help you determine where to devote your attention.

Changing the Workplace

Alongside the individual steps you can take to reduce your stress level, fundamentally reducing the impact of workplace stress will likely require a paradigm shift within the facility, Kennedy says.

“Right now, the workplace isn’t working for a lot of people,” he says. “If you look at suicide rates, the amount of substance abuse, and the accident-proneness of physicians, we clearly need changes on a deeper level.”

To side-step many of these problems, it would be beneficial for hospitals and clinics to provide communal areas where providers can congregate to talk throughout the day. These venues offer a space for both work and leisure conversations. They can be vital to creating the friendships and support network that you need at the office to manage the daily stressors.

Ultimately, Brown says, you can expect to encounter regular pressures in your work life. But, you can address them, and you shouldn’t feel bad about being aware of their impacts.

“Stress management doesn’t have to be complicated. Many physicians will view their stress as some form of pathology, and they experience some shame around being impacted by it,” Brown says. “And, in the majority of cases, that’s not true. It’s nothing neuropathological, it’s just that their stress is increasing, and they have to try to reduce it and cope with it.”