With over two decades of experience as a Senior Consultant at the Singapore General Hospital’s (SGH) Department of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine, Clinical Associate Professor Phua Ghee Chee knows first-hand how a heavy workload and hectic work life can take a toll on one’s mental health.
“Many times in my career, I have felt physically, mentally and emotionally exhausted, and this experience rings true to many healthcare workers, especially so when the COVID-19 pandemic struck,” he said. “There was a lot of responsibility on my shoulders, leading the pandemic ICU response. It was so difficult taking care of patients, colleagues, family and myself at the same time,” he shared.
After a colleague expressed concern that he seemed “joyless” at work, Assoc Prof Phua realised that he was experiencing burnout and decided to pluck up the courage to speak to a counsellor. “Healthcare workers often expect ourselves to be ‘invincible’ and we find it so difficult to ask for help.” He credits counselling for improving his mental well-being and selfcare skills. This helped him to better cope with stress and uncertainty.
Assoc Prof Phua holds a concurrent appointment as the Deputy Chief Executive Officer at SGH, in addition to his clinical and academic appointments.
In April 2022, Assoc Prof Phua was appointed as SingHealth’s Group Director of Staff Wellness, where he spearheads initiatives to promote staff wellness and make it central to the organisational culture. He sees this appointment as a great opportunity to emphasise SingHealth’s priority on staff wellness, an issue that is particularly important to healthcare workers.
“You cannot pour from an empty cup. Healthcare workers give a lot of themselves to patients. Therefore, it is even more important for healthcare workers to take care of themselves so that they have the capacity and empathy to care for others.”
Burnout is not a new issue among healthcare workers, Assoc Prof Phua said. However, he recognised that the pandemic resulted in an escalation of burnout and fatigue in the healthcare sector. This was contributed by increased workload, social isolation, loss of control and uncertainty resulting from a constantly changing situation.
“As healthcare workers, our sense of mission to protect our community against the pandemic is very strong. However, as the stress and anxiety, both at work as well as home, built up over a prolonged time, some healthcare workers began to struggle and feel distressed,” said Assoc Prof Phua. To tackle such issues and strengthen the organisational culture for staff wellness, he and his team employed a systematic approach to understand employees’ needs.
They set up a Staff Wellness Council to integrate the best practices and insights to support staff wellness. The Council includes institutional leaders and professional group representatives such as doctors, nurses, allied health professionals, administrative, as well as subject-matter experts like psychologists and medical social workers.
According to Assoc Prof Phua, the first step to fostering a culture of staff wellness lies in defining wellness and why it is important. The Council has developed five key pillars:
The newly formed Council is strengthening the peer support network among different groups of staff so that those who face difficulties can approach their peers for emotional support. Beyond that, the Council is also looking to streamline work processes so that staff can focus on patient care, among other initiatives.
In the course of his work, it is important that Assoc Prof Phua understands what matters to his colleagues. “The conversations we have on staff wellness should not be a top-down approach. Individuals must be aware of how they can alleviate their stressors as there is no one-size-fits-all solution,” Assoc Prof Phua shared.
Outside of work, Assoc Prof Phua has a self-care ritual that he practises regularly. This includes running, gratitude journaling and mindfulness-guided meditation. He often volunteers with his family and golden retriever at Animal-Assisted Interaction Singapore to promote well-being and bring joy to those around.
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