How to Navigate the Stress and Trauma of a Global Pandemic: A Model for Healthcare Professionals on the Front Lines

By: Susan Leys, ICISF Member

As healthcare professionals and emergency responders, you know there’s stress, and then there’s traumatic stress. The pressure that stays with you, makes you hunker down and just keep going because that’s who you are; that’s what you do. When the rest of us are asleep or celebrating holidays with our loved ones, physicians, nurses, techs, therapists, emergency responders, and other professionals across the country are leaving their families to go and care for ours.

But when you add the dynamics and challenges of a global pandemic to your career, which is already stressful, learning how to cope now needs to be significantly more comprehensive than using your basic stress management strategies. You now need to focus on who you are, the skills you have, and how you can manage your stress when you can’t see the end game.

Why? Because a global pandemic is too big and now requires you to think differently.

Here are seven factors to consider when navigating the traumatic stress of a global pandemic in an acute, fast-paced, healthcare department:

B. Be Present

Your work in a fast-paced, high stress, acute healthcare environment is challenging. It’s a career that challenges you to have difficult conversations with the patients and families in your care. Because of this, physicians and nurses use the defenses necessary to manage their emotions during each interaction they have.

When you consider that there are over thirty defenses you can use to manage your feelings, as well as hundreds of words to express the feelings and emotions you have, this can be a challenging process—almost an art form. Because while you’re feeling these feelings, you need to maintain composure, professionalism, and tact while having some of the saddest conversations patients and families will ever hear

Being present means having more authentic, supportive conversations with your colleagues and patients while guarding the defenses that protect and shield you from the traumatic stress in front of you.

A. Adaptable & Analytical

Adaptable: In any stressful or traumatic situation, the speed at which you can adapt and adjust to the environment you are in will assist you with being able to cope with the tension. Developing a consistent routine—even if it’s limited by the speed and acuity of your unit—will help you with navigating the pace over a more extended period.

Analytical: The second part of our “A game” is analyzing your shift when it is over. Ask yourself the following seven questions:

  1. What was the most challenging situation I experienced during my day?
  2. What was the most difficult conversation I had with a patient or colleague?
  3. What was the most intense emotion I felt?
  4. What was the best part of my day? What were the high points of your shift, or what were the “wins” you had that made you proud of the work you and your team are doing?
  5. What did I see one of my colleagues do that inspired me or made me change the way I do something? What did you say to them about it? What was it about what they did that impressed you?
  6. What was something a patient or colleague told me that was supportive or motivated me during my shift?
  7. What is something positive I learned about myself today?

These questions will help you leave your shift behind when you leave your hospital. Having closure on your day and “anchoring” the experience you had is beneficial so that when you return, you’re not bringing residual emotions or challenges with you from your previous shifts.

S. Selflessly Set Your Team Up For Success

In one of the hospitals where I worked previously, we always began our evening report by acuity. We started by reviewing the sickest patients in our hospital and any adjustments necessary to improve their care. As our conversations about all of the patients in our hospital progressed, we ended with our last question: “How can we set our team up for success?” We looked at any additional support we could provide or thought ahead to make sure all of our bases were covered. Planning by anticipating our team’s needs helped provide support and cohesion for them while reducing unanticipated stress or complications.

T. Tactfully Truthful

If you’ve worked in healthcare for a few years, you also know that some of the conversations we have with patients and families are some of the most difficult ones to hear.

In any healthcare environment, you will have conversations that are not going to be easy to hear. Your goal is to be able to have the conversations you need to have as truthfully and honestly as possible, taking into consideration their feelings and emotions. The more authentic you are, the easier and more engaging your conversations will be. The other important factor to consider is paying attention to micro-expressions. Micro-expressions are the split-second non-verbal expressions you see on the faces of the people you’re speaking to. If they appear to look as if they’re questioning what you’re saying or they don’t understand the words or terminology you may be using, stop the conversation, and check in with them. Ask: “Tell me what you heard me say,” or “Do you have any questions that I can answer before I continue?”

I. Integrity, Intellect, & Intuition

These three factors combined (integrity, intellect, and intuition) will serve you well throughout your career.

Integrity: A leader at a hospital where I used to work frequently used to tell our team, “Integrity is everything. Guard yours with your life.” Guarding your integrity means keeping your morals and values intact and not compromising your beliefs and ethics.

Intellect: Intellect is what you know. It’s the combination of your book knowledge and your professional experience from the conversations you’ve had with teachers, mentors, preceptors, patients, and families. Hold onto your confidence in what you know.

Intuition: Your intuition is also extremely important. It’s that gut feeling you have that tells you “look a little closer at this lab result,” or “pay more attention to the nonverbal expressions of the patient in your care,” or “listen closely to what your team is telling you about your patient’s symptoms.” Your intuition is equally as crucial as your intellect, especially when having critical conversations with patients and families. Whether it’s a pause in a conversation, a look on a patient’s face, or a sense that something’s not quite right, it’s essential to pay attention to your intuition and listen to it.

O. Open-Mindedness

One of the biggest challenges of working in healthcare is not always knowing who will be coming through the door next, what their symptoms will be, how acute they are, and who they may have with them for support. From your interactions with them, you will learn that your patient is a father or mother, sister or brother, partner or spouse. The more time you spend with them, the faster they will transcend from the “patient in room 4” to someone with a name, a family, a legacy. You may not have the time you need to know all there is to know about them, but you will have enough time to engage with them in a manner that shows you their challenges, their vulnerability, their strength, and their heart. Keep an open mind about who they are, as their relationship with you may be the last interaction they have.

N. Navigate To Your True North

You chose your career in healthcare for a reason. However, a global pandemic may not have been on your radar, and now the challenge becomes how to navigate your emotions, conversations, interactions, and stress.

Make sure you develop a routine that will be able to support you during these difficult times. In any healthcare environment, you can’t always predict what’s going to happen, but you can control how you respond to it. The more of a routine you can develop for yourself, the less stress you will have.

Pay attention to your team. Are you all working collaboratively and cohesively? If you notice that a colleague has called out, check in with them. While they may say they’re “handling everything,” they may not be. They may attempt to show you that they can keep up with the team and the demands of what’s going on when, in fact, they may not be able to, which is difficult to admit when you know your team is depending on you. Take the time to check in with your team, it will work in your favor over time.


S.A. Leys a Consultant and Coach with Our mission is to consult, coach and debrief the healthcare professionals and teams who care for all of us. Visit us on the web at