Anyone working in healthcare can attest to how demanding the field is. Even before the pandemic, healthcare professionals had high rates of burnout and turnover. And the pandemic only accentuated these challenges.
The pandemic brought about endless challenges for the entire population. But for community health workers, these challenges looked different. CHWs work with some of the highest-risk populations, people who could not afford to stay home from work and whose jobs were considered essential (those working on farms, driving public transportation, or operating cash registers and front desks, to name a few). Elderly citizens with the highest risk of severe complications from COVID, and in many cases, people who couldn’t afford medical care if they got sick — and those who didn’t dare access medical care out of fear of deportation.
Still, CHWs remained at the forefront of social services throughout the pandemic and continue to do so today. In fact, the Bureau of Labor Statistics projects that the CHW career will see significant growth over the next decade. And for CHWs to succeed in the industry, they must be able to care for themselves before serving their community.
Three Essential Self-care Practices for Community Health Workers
Community health workers are members of the community they serve. This sense of belonging is one of the core reasons why CHWs are so good at what they do. They share the same background, culture, and experiences as their patients.
However, this closeness may also complicate professional relationships because it blurs the lines between personal life and work. These blurry lines make for a complicated work environment, and creating clear boundaries between work and personal time is essential.
Some of the core skills that will help CHWs develop and enforce healthy professional boundaries and practice self-care include:
- Cultural humility and responsiveness: Understanding the cultural context allows CHWs to build successful relationships and serve their patients from a place of respect.
- Interpersonal and relationship-building skills: These refer to the use of Motivational Interviewing techniques and building rapport with patients for a fruitful relationship that improves health outcomes.
- Professional skills and conduct: Following ethical standards like codes of ethics, laws, and institutional guidelines, and adhering to data protection laws like HIPAA, as well as maintaining proper communication channels with patients and coworkers.
In theory, community health workers should manage 10 to 30 cases on average. The exact number depends on factors like complexity and their patients’ individual needs. In practice, however, the average community health worker manages 40 to 50 cases, according to the CDC.
Besides the increased workload, CHWs face budget restrictions, bureaucracy, and legal implications like changing immigration policies. All while seeing their patients face new challenges like inflation and deteriorating health. It’s no wonder why healthcare workers face burnout at such high rates. It also makes it obvious that self-care is essential for success in this field.
The following core skills are essential pieces of any CHW’s professional puzzle. Use these to create the systems that’ll make your job run more efficiently:
- Evaluation and research skills: It’s essential for CHWs to identify the real struggles and needs a community is facing, as well as their root causes, by collecting data and being able to document and communicate their findings.
- Organizational and documentation skills: A core function of CHWs is presenting complex information in a way that makes sense for patients and clients within their cultural context. Similarly, managing patients’ and programs’ data in an organized manner allows for better case management and progress tracking.
- Service coordination and navigation skills: One big element of CHWs’ workload is connecting patients to the health services they need in a timely manner. Knowing whom to turn to and what resources are available in the area is essential in improving the community’s ability to fulfill its needs.
- Outreach skills: An effective outreach strategy means that the general population is aware of the services and opportunities they have access to, including screenings, medical care, and more.
Now, every core skill in the books won’t be enough to prevent burnout if community health workers don’t develop healthy habits for themselves.
The most important self-care tip for CHWs is to effectively separate work from personal life. Easier said than done, given the complex nature of the work. But without taking the proper time to enjoy hobbies, nurture personal relationships, and rest, no core skill will stave off burnout.
One way to separate between personal time and time on the clock is by following a schedule. Creating routines signals to the brain that work begins and ends. This is especially important when you work from home or in the field. A typical office job has a commute and a clearly delineated physical space that tells you it’s time to work. But flexible work arrangements often blur the lines between personal and professional time. Achieving work-life separation requires discipline and conscious planning, but it is achievable and will help you feel better in the long run.
Community Health Workers Are Susceptible to Burnout. Self-care Is Essential in Preventing It
There are many causes of burnout. The most common include increasingly heavy workloads and the inability to grow professionally. Feeling stagnant or underappreciated in your current role also increases the risk. Unfortunately, many of these are part of CHWs’ day-to-day life. Employers can take a proactive approach and create a burnout prevention plan by knowing what to look for.
Consistent self-care practices, flexible arrangements, and professional development are program managers’ best tools to foster a healthy, thriving professional environment for community health workers.