By Jane Mather
Western medicine has increasingly given lip service to the concept of holistic health, employing practitioners of mind and spirit to accompany the technical work of doctors and nurses in the care of patients and the support of their families. Chaplains have been employed to support the spirit, and social workers, psychologists and psychiatrists to render emotional and psychological nurture. Given the emphasis on evidence, we can assume that these roles exist because they have proven effective, not just at the end of life when all medical means have failed, but throughout the healing trajectory.
While chaplains were originally engaged as support for patients and their families, care for the whole person, body, mind and spirit, has evolved to include the caregiving staff as well. A healthy staff — one that is physically well, emotionally steady and spiritually balanced — creates an environment conducive to healing. The fact that such an environment also improves patient satisfaction, reduces absenteeism, employee turnover and worker dissatisfaction has also been duly noted by those keenly interested in how such factors impact the bottom line.
Chaplains attending to the sick and the dying know well the interplay between mind, body and spirit, and how care for any of those dimensions will be good for all of them. However, it has become increasingly popular to pay special attention to the human spirit in the interest of holistic health. We have learned that the mind and the spirit can provide critical help to those suffering from bodily sickness or injury, especially when we engage the mind and spirit on behalf of healing. The work of chaplains in healthcare is the intentional support of each person’s spiritual health.
Once relegated to discussions between clerics and their parishioners, today spiritual well-being has become front-page material for Time magazine and highlighted in Forbes and the Harvard Business Review. Increased public awareness of the importance of personal spiritual health (not to be confused with specific religious teachings) has helped employers of all types to encourage their employees to care for all dimensions of their health. Growing numbers of businesses have included workout and exercise rooms, counseling, and places (both physical and time) for quiet meditation.
A business may see such measures as a means to a financial end; but chaplains see spiritual wellbeing as an end in itself. Attending to the whole self allows individuals to become their best, regardless of their occupation, physical status or religious connection (or lack thereof), and although the chaplain has historically been involved in care for patients who are sick or near death, we are becoming more aware that the same skills we have used to support and restore health can also be used to prevent sickness! Care for and attention to mind, body and spirit in balance and with intention — these are the building blocks of health!
Healthcare administrators are slowly realizing that supporting caregivers’ health also improves the care that their patients feel they have gotten from those same workers; thus, programs are developing at even the busiest hospitals and clinics to engage staff in holistic self-care. Because the busiest, most hectic places, such as ICUs and emergency departments, seem to impose the most intense stress on the doctors and nurses who work in them, they are most in need of developing practices that restore and inspire health.
The phrase “Physician, heal thyself” nudges us to avoid hypocrisy by walking our talk. Healthcare chaplains must be prepared to model healthy self-care behaviors and lead and inspire others to take literally the admonition to be healthy from the inside out. It is not just to maintain a viable workforce, but because we are called to honor health (root word “whole”) as a gift of creation, for ourselves, for the patients and families we encounter and for the colleagues with whom we work. Teaching our colleagues about healthy self-care practices, and advocating for time and space in our workplaces to practice them, will change the environment of care almost as much as our time at the bedside of patients.
Chaplain time dedicated to staff care expands the concepts of self-care exponentially, because every doctor or nurse then touches multiple patients, hopefully with less stress and more compassion. If we can teach about critical incident stress management, second-victim support, spirituality and the workplace, resiliency and coping skills, or offer support groups and Bible study groups for staff, then a holistically healthy medical staff is likely to be attentive to the basic spiritual needs of patients and families. This frees chaplains to attend to the most spiritually distressed patients — who are more likely to be identified and referred by spiritually attuned caregivers! Such an integrated model of care fulfills both the medical and the spiritual mission for healthcare — especially Catholic healthcare — and is likely to shape the future for healthcare and for chaplains. Let’s be equipped to teach, model and lead past the bedside and in cooperation with colleagues equally dedicated to mind, body and spirit wholeness.
Jane Mather, BCC, retired as the director of the Center for Health and Wellbeing at Providence Health Care.