The issue of stress is constantly hitting the headlines — from the increase of stress in the workplace to research highlighting the impact that stress can have on a physical, emotional and psychological level. This article will explore the stress-related issues faced by midwives and strategies to help them increase their resilience and ability to cope with the ever increasing levels of adversity.
In the 2015 National Health Service (NHS) staff survey, almost half of the 5286 midwives who took part suffered from work-related stress (Picker Institute Europe 2015). In a survey of midwives I worked with in 2014, a shocking 78% had considered leaving the profession with a staggering 81% citing stress as the number one reason (Howell 2014).
Royal College of Midwives (RCM) Director for Policy, Employment Relations and Communications, Jon Skewes says: “Midwives are the backbone of the NHS, they work tirelessly to deliver the highest quality care to women and their babies, often without fair overtime payments and to have almost 4000 midwives suffering work-related stress is deeply concerning” (Griffiths 2016).
This statement will resonate throughout the midwifery arena and wholly echoes my sentiments and those of many others. Considering almost every midwife enters the profession because they are passionate about supporting women and their babies, there is something fundamentally wrong when such a high percentage find their job has taken a toll on their emotional, as well as physical, well-being.
What exactly is stress?
Let us just briefly explore what stress actually is. We use the term prolifically as it has become interwoven with all areas of modern living. Nevertheless, the term ‘stress’, as we know it, is relatively new and continues to evolve in both meaning and context. The term originated from the Latin word stringere meaning to ‘draw tight’. The use of the term in relation to the ‘fight or flight’ response was attributed to Walter Cannon in 1932 and then later to Hans Selye in 1936 who used the term ‘stress’ as a psychological concept (Kennard 2008). In research terms today, stress embraces biochemical, behavioural, physiological and psychological effects.
We have come to a common understanding that stress is what you experience when you are faced with a perceived difficult situation, which feels in some way threatening to you, and your instinctive reaction is that you cannot cope effectively. This perceived threat activates your parasympathetic nervous system, which triggers a series of biochemical, behavioural, physiological or psychological changes, which in turn can put significant strain on the body.
Observing the biology and chemistry of stress, it is actually a phenomenal process that has helped to keep humans safe since man first walked the earth. The problem that we face today is that this system has not evolved quickly enough to cope with the new challenges of modern day living, and we are spending longer and longer in this parasympathetic state which is leading to an ever increasing strain on our bodies. It is now believed that 75–90% of doctors’ visits are due to stress-related problems or illnesses (The American Institute of Stress 2016).
Read the rest of the article in the September 2016 issue of MIDIRS Midwifery Digest.
Howell M. MIDIRS Midwifery Digest, vol 26, no 3, September 2016, pp 277-282