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If Hospitals Can Make a Break, You Can Too

Anna Seubert Pelosi works to alleviate the biggest problem in healthcare— overworked staff. As Wellness Coordinator for the Union Hospital in Lynne, Massachusetts, Pelosi shows doctors and nurses how to care for themselves in the stressful environment. Knowing that healthier caregivers are happier, more responsive to patient needs, and less apt to leave their jobs, Pelosi feels a special responsibility to enhance the wellness of everyone working in the hospital. 

One way she models wellness is through the Caregiver’s Circle. Once a week, she and the hospital chaplain visit hospital departments, inviting the staff to join them for tea, snacks, soothing music and a brief session of guided imagery, breathing exercises or meditation.

At first, uncertain about such unfamiliar break time activities, few attended. But Pelosi persevered. She adjusted her schedule to meet the staff’s needs, listened attentively, and responded to their doubts. Gradually, she overcame the resistance. Circle participants began encouraging their co-workers to attend. Soon, other departments requested a weekly session. “It has evolved over time,” Pelosi explains, “as a way to participate in your own well being that also benefits others.”

Pelosi initiates change by starting exactly where people are – their bodies. Workers readily acknowledged they didn’t breathe much in tense situations so she began with breathing exercises. “Attending to their breath made them feel more relaxed,” she reports. “Some went beyond the session, stopping to deep-breathe a couple of times when the phone was ringing off the hook, the doctor was yelling, or a patient was pushing on the buzzer.”

Nurses discovered that pausing for a few deep breaths before dealing with a difficult situation made a difference. They began using breathing exercises at home. “Lights were going on,” exults Pelosi, “the awareness factor was evolving. Now nurses who’ve been here will take new nurses to the Caregivers Circle and say: ‘This is what we offer here. You need to make use of it when you take on your patients.’ It builds a sort of grass roots effort.”

Part of Pelosi’s challenge is to include embodied awareness in staff meetings and program design. “I often suggest we start a meeting with some deep breathing,” she relates, “to be fully present so that the hour we spend together can be most beneficial. People might respond: ‘Oh, that’s Anna doing her thing.’ Then they notice… ‘but, gee, my headache did go away!’”

Pelosi’s own schedule rivals that of the busiest physician – she arrives at the hospital at 7 a.m. and often puts in a twelve-hour day. A repertoire of simple practices that fit between seeing patients or meeting with staff helps her stay centered. “I may walk through our healing gardens, drink a big glass of water or wash my hands and wash out whatever I can’t do anything about. Time for laughter is important.”

Pelosi arrived at Union Hospital after a decade in Brattleboro, Vermont where she managed a natural apothecary and participated in groups that fostered self-awareness. “I could never have come here without those deep learning experiences,” she insists. “They revealed the inner support system available to me. As long as I keep nourishing that, I can keep doing the work I’m doing.”

While theory and academic learning are important, she notes they do not teach one how to be. Programs that acknowledge the whole self create an environment to which people want to come — and want to stay. She sees her work as an opportunity to understand the dynamics of leadership: “You want people to make decisions and take responsibility. We invite them to check in with their own inner authority.”

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