Learning Experience Design: Stress First Aid for Healthcare Workers

In the heart of challenges lies the seed of opportunity—a philosophy embraced by the Duke School of Nursing and our Learning Experience (LX) design team. We’re excited to announce a new self-paced, online course, Stress First Aid for Healthcare Workers: A Peer Support Tool, now available on Coursera. This course stands as a beacon of support and understanding for healthcare workers and students by offering more than just academic knowledge and professional skills training. Using a trauma-informed approach to learning, this course delves into the emotional and psychological aspects of healthcare work, equipping participants with the tools they need for self-care and peer support in a demanding field.

What is Stress First Aid?

The Stress First Aid (SFA) model is a flexible and practical framework designed to provide support and recovery to individuals experiencing stress. Imagine it as a first aid kit, but instead of bandages and antiseptics for physical wounds, it’s equipped with strategies and techniques to help manage emotional and psychological stress. The model outlines clear steps to identify stress signs, offering both self-help and community support options. It emphasizes immediate care through simple actions like ensuring safety, providing comfort, and promoting calm. Then, it guides individuals through a process of recovery, encouraging connection, efficiency, and eventually, a return to normal functioning or learning to adapt to changes.

The Seven Cs of Stress First Aid: Check, Coordinate, Cover, Calm, Connect, Competence, and Confidence
Graphic representation of the Seven C’s of Stress First Aid, a cornerstone framework designed to support healthcare professionals in recognizing and addressing stress and trauma among their peers.

Why Now?

The past years have highlighted the critical need for support within the healthcare community, prompting the Duke University School of Nursing, in collaboration with the Duke Health Interprofessional Education and Care Center and North Carolina Central University (NCCU), to develop a positive psychology-informed Stress First Aid training program. Aimed at reducing stress and burnout among health professions students, faculty, and staff at Duke and NCCU, this peer-to-peer training empowers participants to assess and respond to psychological injuries, emphasizing life preservation, harm prevention, and recovery promotion.

After providing live SFA training to 451 individuals at Duke and NCCU, feedback highlighted the need for more practical SFA applications and better access for remote learners. Addressing this, the SFA team launched virtual Booster sessions and initiated the development of an online, self-paced Coursera course with LILE’s LX design team.

This strategic expansion into online offerings represents a significant step forward in making Stress First Aid training accessible to a wider audience of healthcare professionals and students. By offering this course on Coursera, we open up new avenues for learning and support, allowing participants to engage with the material at their own pace and on their own terms. This move not only broadens the availability of essential stress management and peer support tools but also affirms our commitment to fostering a culture of care and well-being across the healthcare sector.

What Sets This Course Apart?

At the core of our course is the commitment to a trauma-informed approach, recognizing the profound impact stress and trauma have on healthcare professionals. This guiding principle influenced every aspect of the course’s development, from content selection to presentation, ensuring that learners find a safe, supportive, and empathetic learning environment. This approach is particularly important given the course’s focus on potentially distressing topics related to stress and trauma in healthcare settings.

Using a trauma-informed approach, we leverage real-world examples to deepen understanding and application of critical care principles. In Week 2 of the course, the instructional team developed example case studies to show learners how to apply the full Stress First Aid model in real world settings. The story of Jared, an acute care nurse practitioner navigating the complexities of stress and isolation in a healthcare setting, serves as a foundational case study in this course. Before introducing Jared’s experience, learners receive clear content warnings, enabling them to emotionally prepare or choose to engage with the material when they feel ready. This approach ensures a respectful and safe learning environment, acknowledging the diverse backgrounds and sensitivities of our audience.

Screenshot of content warning
Example of a case study video, marked with a content warning, addressing themes of isolation and directing viewers in need of support to the National Alliance on Mental Illness for educational resources, support groups, and local mental health treatment options.

Case studies like Jared’s are strategically embedded throughout the course to offer learners a comprehensive understanding of the stress continuum. Jared’s experience is an illustration of the stress continuum (see the graphic below), showcasing his shift from a state of well-being and engagement (the “Green Zone”) to experiencing significant stress and isolation (the “Orange Zone”). Through Jared’s story, learners explore SFA techniques, such as “Check and Coordinate” for fostering self-awareness and cultivating community support, alongside “Cover and Calm” for alleviating immediate distress.

The Stress Continuum Model is a range of four statuses: ready (optimal functioning), reacting (predictable stress), injured (functional impairment), and ill (significant functional impairment).
Graphic representation of the Stress Continuum Model, visually segmenting into green, yellow, orange, and red zones to illustrate the spectrum of stress responses, from healthy functioning to severe stress, aiding healthcare professionals in identifying and addressing stress levels effectively.

Case studies serve not just as examples of how stress and trauma manifest but also as opportunities for learners to actively engage with the SFA model. By navigating through these case studies, learners are empowered to skillfully manage stress and support mental well-being, both in their personal lives and within professional healthcare contexts, armed with a comprehensive toolkit for addressing the nuances of stress and trauma using the SFA model as a guide.

Our Collaborative Effort

This course is the fruit of collective expertise and shared vision. 

  • Bernice Alston, PhD, Director of the Student Success Center for the Duke University School of Nursing
  • Mary Barzee, EdM, Operations Coordinator for the HRSA-funded Stress First Aid program at Duke University School of Nursing
  • Dr. Sean Convoy, DNP, PMHNP-BC, is an Associate Professor at Duke University leading its Psychiatric – Mental Health Nurse Practitioner program
  • Dr. Mitchell T. Heflin, MD, MHS, is Associate Dean and Director of the Duke Health Center for Interprofessional Education and Care (IPEC) and Professor of Medicine in the Division of Geriatrics for Duke University Schools of Medicine and Nursing
  • Chanel Copeland, PA-C, MHS, is an Orthopedic Physician Assistant with Duke Health
  • Undi Hoffler, PhD, is Director, Research Compliance & Technology Transfer for North Carolina Central University
  • Bryan Sexton, PhD, is the Director of the Duke Center for Healthcare Safety and Quality
  • Devon Henry, Media Producer
  • Nick Janes, Learning Media Designer
  • Tara Kramling, Learning Experience Producer
  • Megan Lancaster, Senior Learning Experience Designer
  • Hannah Rogers, Learning Experience Designer

As we celebrate the launch of “Stress First Aid for Healthcare Workers: A Peer Support Tool,” we invite you to join us in this important conversation. Together, we can create a healthier, more supportive environment for those who dedicate their lives to caring for others.