Supporting the Health and Well-Being of Medical Interpreters [Part 5]

Male medical interpreter looking sad sitting on a ledge with his back to a cityscape.

This is the fifth and final post in our series discussing the future of language access and COVID-19. Read part 1, part 2, part 3, or part 4 now.

In “normal” times, stress, anxiety, burnout, compassion fatigue, and vicarious trauma threaten the health and mental well-being of even the most seasoned medical interpreters. Add months and months of COVID-19 into the mix, and the toll it’s taking on interpreters who work in healthcare is, as the pandemic itself, unprecedented.

“I am a little bit burned out I have to say,” states Valerie M. via Science Friday. She works as a medical interpreter for a children’s hospital in Texas. “Our families are limited in technology usage and I have to say that everybody’s having a very hard time. So I listened to their stories, their concerns, and it’s very stressful.”

This stress isn’t just isolated to their work environment, either. Medical interpreters also suffer from many of the same mental burdens the rest of us face: loss of friends and loved ones, social isolation, profound disruption of life, and general uncertainty. In some cases, the shared language of a medical interpreter is the only link patients have to their life in the outside world, as tight restrictions prevent family members from visiting loved ones in the hospital. That’s a heavy responsibility. 

As leaders, it’s important for language access managers to ensure their medical interpreting staff feel supported and safe during these challenging times. Here are some ways to do that. 

Know that support in a crisis is not static

In a webinar presented by the University of Wisconsin Department of Psychiatry, Patricia Watson, PhD, of the National Center for PTSD discussed the importance of the support you provide to remain fluid. 

If the pandemic has taught healthcare anything, it’s how to adapt to rapid change. Language access managers should have a similar mindset to the management of staff health and wellness. Many of the burdens placed on medical interpreters during these times of crises ebb and flow in unexpected ways, including some related to disruptions to daily living (lack of mass transit or childcare, for example). These types of sudden changes can have great consequences on mental health and require you to look for different solutions and opportunities to support your team.

Support during the pandemic “demands a willingness to experiment and remain creative because in times like this . . . it cannot be prescriptive,” states Dr. Watson. “We cannot say to you, ‘You need to do x, y, and z in order to have well-being.’ In situations like this, the context demands that people adapt any kind of stress management, any kind of support that they’re giving to others.”

Look for virtual resources

Vonessa P. Costa, CoreCHITM, manager of Multicultural Affairs and Patient Services at Cambridge Health Alliance, shared in a webinar hosted by the Certification Commission for Healthcare Interpreters (CCHI) that, once or twice a month, her staff (all 100 of them!) watch webinars together as group. Some of the topics include coping with interpreting trauma while experiencing trauma, resilience, and self-care.

Interpreters have responded positively to this resource. Costa noted that the “dedicated space to process and to learn new techniques for that [coping with stress] is helpful.”

Related: Want to Feel More Calm? Head This Way for Interpreter Self-Care Tips

Take advantage of employee assistance programs

Employee assistance programs (EAPs) are offered by employers to help their employees navigate work-related problems and/or personal stressors. If there is ever a time to take advantage of this resource, it’s now! 

EAPs are free for employees and offer a ton of confidential services like legal consultations, financial advice, mental health counseling, and referrals for child or elder care.

Remind your medical interpreters about the benefits included in their EAP and give them the contact info to access the service. If you’re not sure your healthcare organization has an EAP, ask your HR Department.

Start daily huddles

Communication during a crisis looks a little different than business as usual. This is why, as a leader, it’s important for you to communicate frequently and honestly with your interpreting staff. The huddle is a great way to accomplish this. 

Set a regular time daily to meet with your medical interpreters. It can be as a group or individually (or both). Make space for your interpreters to share and discuss ideas, and not just the good stuff. Be open and honest about the stress they’re under, and acknowledge and address their fears as best as you can. 

In addition, daily huddles give you the opportunity to align your team and set expectations. In turn, your interpreters will know where they stand and can continue to give their job their all without spinning out thinking about the worst case scenarios.

Find ways to celebrate and recognize each other

Life hasn’t stopped for people just because we’re in a pandemic. Babies are still born, graduations still commence, and great achievements are still made. Celebrate these. Encourage your medical interpreting staff to share stories and much-needed humor. Your typical streams of connection are currently disrupted, including with each other, so ensure your staff have a space to connect as human beings.

Technology can offer a safe, helpful way to maintain camaraderie among your team. Web-based tools like Slack or video conferencing technology like Zoom are really popular and easy to use. Just make sure you verify what options you have with your IT Department.

Encourage a culture of peer support

Jo Shapiro, MD, FACS, surgeon and director of the Center for Professionalism and Peer Support at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, points out in a webinar hosted by the American Medical Association (AMA) that, while healthcare has a strong culture of healing, it also has a dark side. 

“The culture, in some ways, has let us down,” states Dr. Shapiro. “Over [the] years, it’s been increasing our workload without actually increasing the support . . . we’ve been taught that our physical, mental, and emotional needs are not important, and generally speaking, the system has set us up to not recognize the humanity in us or each other.”

To combat this, she recommends a peer support model. Peer support, according to Dr. Shapiro, “is an organizational approach and an individual approach to being there for each other.” 

Peer support helps normalize the emotional reactions — such as stress, fear, guilt, and depression — healthcare workers contend with daily, which are heightened during a pandemic. It allows them to express themselves to a peer who can empathize with what they’re going through. Peer support has been found to build resiliency, help with coping mechanisms, increase well-being, and lessen burnout. 

Related: Self-Assessment For Interpreters and Communications Professionals

And don’t lose hope

It may sound silly, but hope isn’t just any old trait. In fact, it can actually help protect our brains from the perils of anxiety. That’s a big deal! 

One way to instill hope in your interpreting staff is to have some yourself. Yes, that is a big ask, especially during a pandemic. But doing so can help your staff weather the storm and get through it in one piece. They are looking to you for guidance and leadership. They are looking to you for support and protection in the face of mounting uncertainty.

Work with your staff to create goals, involve them in decision-making processes, and develop a pathway to the future together. 

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