Wellness Wednesday: Valuing vulnerability in ourselves and others

September 30, 2020  //  FOUND IN: Updates & Resources

Stress has been at an all-time high for many Michigan Medicine faculty and staff members this year, in the midst of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and nationwide unrest.

Nicole Figueroa, M.S.N., R.N., AHN-BC, HWNC-BC, nurse leader for diversity, equity, inclusion and wellbeing, shared information in a recent Short Takes Reflect & Recharge video about the significance of creating a culture where it is safe to discuss our own vulnerabilities and suffering. And, beyond acknowledging these difficult feelings, she explained why it is so important that we learn to value vulnerability and the ability to reach out for help as strengths and not weaknesses.

Personal values

Many health care workers possess certain traits, or personal values, that make it difficult to prioritize their own needs and wellbeing.

“As health care professionals, many of us enter this field with a set of core values that drive our passion to care for other people,” said Figueroa. “For instance, many of us share a core value of selflessness, the desire to put the needs of others before our own.

“We feel most at ease when we are caring for others,” she said. “While this value helps us excel in our professional lives, if we lean too much on that value we can lose sight of our own needs.”

Figueroa said the value of selflessness can cause individuals to feel guilty about taking time for themselves. When surrounded by like-minded individuals, working in an environment that focuses on caring for others, oftentimes there is an even greater sense that taking time for self-care and renewal might be a bad thing when, in fact, it is necessary for our own wellbeing and our ability to effectively care for others.

Another value common to health care professionals is stoicism.

“We find great value in being able to be the calm in the storm,” said Figueroa. “We can weather any crisis or any amount of stress, and we have come to believe that these traits make us strong and resilient.”

But, Figueroa said not allowing ourselves to experience our own vulnerability can cause great suffering. She said health care workers may believe if they are impacted by the work they are doing, they are not strong enough, or may be viewed by others as weak.

“Recognizing the risks and vulnerabilities created by these deeply embedded values, and fighting against these beliefs to reach out for help when needed is actually a tremendous act of strength,” she said.

Stress continuum and stress injuries

Understanding the impact of ongoing or severe stress and traumatic events, and creating a common language to talk about the injuries that can result from that stress, are important aspects in creating a culture that embraces vulnerability, encourages self-care and offers support.

The Stress Continuum Model is a tool being used at Michigan Medicine to help create a framework for understanding.

“This model is a simple way to evaluate and monitor how we are coping with the stress in our work environment,” said Figueroa. “Our hope is that use of the model will help identify when injuries and suffering are present, and that it will encourage and destigmatize reaching out for help.

“Acknowledging that injuries caused by stress are just as real as physical injuries, and knowing they are not alone in suffering these injuries, might make it easier for people to seek help when needed,” she said.

Reaching out to help others

Stress is unavoidable. Figueroa said that suffering is a natural part of the beautiful and meaningful work that we do. She encouraged all health care workers to strive together to build a culture where it is safe for individuals to discuss their vulnerabilities and suffering.

“One concrete way we can do this is reaching out to another who might be suffering, being a safe person for them to talk to, being someone who will listen without judgment or trying to solve their problems, and encouraging that person to reach out for professional help if needed,” Figueroa said. “This act alone can save a life.”

Figueroa said that, in creating a culture that values vulnerability and self-care, we normalize our own reactions to stress and support those who need help.

“Together, we can move from suffering to our own collective wisdom and healing,” she said.

Parting thoughts

Learning how to better take care of ourselves and modeling vulnerability as a strength require us to build reflective practices into our everyday work. Figueroa offered some important questions to consider. Each of these questions can be helpful in understanding why we feel the way we do, and thinking about the role we each can play in creating and sustaining a culture that supports our own needs and those of others.

  • Throughout your career, how were self-care and vulnerability modeled by leaders, teachers, your own family?
  • Did your mentors set good examples?
  • How do you mentor others and demonstrate the importance of prioritizing self-care and vulnerability?

Leaders from University Hospital and Frankel Cardiovascular Center have partnered with the Office of Counseling and Workplace Resilience to offer new videos every other week focused on mental and emotional wellbeing. Previous episodes of the Short Takes Reflect and Recharge video series can be viewed here.

For confidential counseling at no cost, referrals, and information on how to address mental and emotional health concerns, faculty and staff can contact the Office of Counseling and Workplace Resilience at counseling.med.umich.edu, or by calling 734-763-5409.