In this episode, Master Certified Coach Jill Farmer welcomes the Co-Founder of StressPal, Pennie Sempell JD to announce, explain and highlight our new exciting collaboration called DocWorking StressPal Frontline.
“So what we’re talking about here is protecting this incredible asset that healthcare workers have and strengthening it, fortifying, as if you’re putting on the best PPE you can, facing that firestorm.” -Pennie Sempell JD
In this episode, Master Certified Coach Jill Farmer welcomes the Co-Founder of Stresspal, Pennie Sempell JD to announce, explain and highlight our new exciting collaboration called DocWorking StressPal Frontline. We are so excited about how our dynamic coaching and peer support combines with the brain-based learning behind this Resilience strengthening course. With DocWorking StressPal Frontline we provide ongoing dynamic coaching and peer support plus the definitive course to help you retrain your brain on how it responds to stress in the heat of the moment, leading to protecting your resilience. Plus you can earn up to 8 CME/CNE/continuing education credits. It’s incredibly affordable and it’s designed to bring your entire healthcare team onto the same page. Tune in to hear about the life changing benefits of this program and how it can help you and your whole team.
For over 25 years Pennie Sempell, JD has conducted training in conflict resolution, stress resilience, and health advocacy in collaboration with medical professionals in both hospital and outpatient settings. A professional mediator/attorney and pioneer in integrative health education, she has authored and produced multiple award-winning multimedia tools and curriculum for adults and children in lifestyle and behavioral medicine topics with an interactive focus. Pennie graduated Phi Beta Kappa from University of California with BA Psychology and Juris Doctor from University of California, Hastings College of the Law. She has extensive certifications in conflict resolution and CAM therapies. She co-founded StressPal with James Monroe, PhD Clinical Psychology, to deliver science-based programs for clinicians and care teams to address an epidemic of stress and stress-related conditions. StressPal launched its highly rated professional development program “StressPal Frontline” in 2021 for the entire healthcare workforce and their families.
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Please enjoy the full transcript below
Pennie: So, what we’re talking about here is protecting this incredible asset that healthcare workers have and strengthening it, fortifying, as if you’re putting on the best PPE you can facing that firestorm.
Jill: I’m so happy you’re here with us on DocWorking: The Whole Physician Podcast, because today, we are so excited to announce a new partnership that allows us to combine our dynamic coaching with peer support, plus an innovative course that’ll help you retrain your brain on “how to interrupt the stress response in the heat of the moment and strengthen your resiliency.” This partnership is called DocWorking StressPal Frontline and it comes with up to eight CME credits. We’re especially excited, because we’re able to provide this affordable solution to your entire healthcare team with continuing education credits. If you’d like to learn more, contact us at [email protected]. That’s right. If you want to learn more, email us today at [email protected].
With me here today is Pennie Sempell, founder of StressPal. We can talk about how this innovative and interactive course was developed and why it integrates so beautifully with DocWorking to create this personalized type of support for you and your entire team. Pennie Sempell has for over 25 years conducted training in conflict resolution, stress resilience, and health advocacy in collaboration with medical professionals in both hospital and outpatient settings. Pennie, thanks so much for being with us today.
Pennie: Glad to join you.
Jill: We get to talk about one of my favorite topics, which is psychological flexibility and resilience. What brought you to this work in helping physicians and other healthcare professionals increase their psychological flexibility and resilience?
Pennie: Oh, that’s a great story. Over one’s life, we all have these journeys we take and we don’t always know where they’re going to go. But I was at University of California, Berkeley as a psych major and it was back in the days when mind-body medicine was a new idea. Even the idea of guided imagery was considered newfangled. I was working at a biofeedback institute and involved in training and guided imagery, meditation practice, and observing how people could change their stress response. This could be readily measured with the biofeedback equipment, but how it was the suggestions and the person’s own capacity to make changes and how that translated to benefits in their health.
I went on to continue at University of California and got a doctorate degree in law and I focused in my practice on conflict resolution and mediation. Actually, during that whole period of time, I was a law student. I was training, doing stress management, relaxation classes, and continued to observe how even in group settings, people could make remarkable changes. Long story short, I ended up joining a physician’s pioneering practice with a group of physicians and working in a hospital on how we could bring these mind-body modalities, the safe noninvasive modalities, to both physicians and patients, who were experiencing a lot of stress-related conditions. I saw that one-on-one approaches were very effective, but not accessible to very many people.
I put together a team, I actually joined forces. My partner in StressPal is a clinical psychologist, James Monroe, and he and I did the research in development of the StressPal tool to bring the leading intervention strategies to everyone.
Jill: Yeah, I love it. You call StressPal ‘robust tools for resilience under fire.’ That’s a powerful way to think about it. So, for somebody who isn’t familiar with it, what is StressPal and what does it do?
Pennie: We are a company that helps healthcare organizations and communities develop flexibility and resilience, both on the individual and the institutional level. We do this by giving them scalable state of the art programs and tools to tackle decade’s long crisis of burnout. I think of it like there’s a firestorm in healthcare. Many of your listeners are going to be well aware of the underlying drivers of burnout. I don’t even really need to repeat really system wide problems that exist.
We focus here on intervention strategies using an online digital health program that’s very personalized, and engaging, and self-paced. Also, it meets that confidentiality, necessity in healthcare to build your capacity for your brain’s ability to adapt and learn from and respond to stressors in ways that are more aligned with what you value. That’s a key part of this, too. Where do you find meaning, where is your purpose, and how can you learn how to assess how your stress triggered behaviors are aligned or not with what’s important to you?
Jill: Right. That’s so important, because we know from a lot of the research that when we filter things through values of what’s important to us or what matters to us depending on how you get to that, there’s so much more sense of contentment purpose. It’s related to success, all of the things that people seem to want in their lives. When we’re more aligned and using those values or what matters to us as a compass, and yet stress responses often try to take over and drive the bus, so to speak. As I know, you guys say and I’ve been saying for a long time, and so it’s a matter of how we take the keys of the bus back, so our values are driving our bus in the direction we want to go.
Pennie: The exciting thing is that the research is there. There’s been fabulous research over the last 20 years on what actually works to help increase the brain’s capacity in the heat of the moment. When the stress response would be kicking in right then and there, what are the metaphors, what are the strategies that you can bring in in those first instances to defuse the stress response? I think it’s helpful also to start even thinking in terms of the practical way we look at it. What are stress responses? Well, they’re thoughts and feelings. I messed up, I did it wrong, they don’t get it, they don’t understand me, they’ll never get this right, those kinds of words we say in our head. There’s the feelings that we’re all familiar with, whether we’re reaching for rage, anger, sadness, frustration. Stress-triggered behaviors are really what start complicating interpersonal relationships, in our own experience. Defensiveness, irritability, passive aggressive behavior, micromanaging.
Stress-triggered behavior, though, is the place, when life gets hard and they’re these external firestorms going on. We look at what we can control. Where we can start to get a better handle on assessing and looking at our stress-triggered behaviors or our stress-triggered thoughts. Then that even gets to our physical stress triggers too which we can talk, but the hub of our stress-triggered behaviors and actions here is where we can really start to make a difference in how we respond to and ultimately align our actions with what’s important to us in those critical moments of heightened stress.
Jill: Yeah, that’s the beauty of this is, it really breaks it down, so that you can understand and your brain learns a whole new way often of having skills and tools so that in the moment, when you’re used to just having that automatic action-reaction cycle or we look back later and go, “Oh, why did I say that, why did I do that? There, I did it again.” Learning this program allows us to learn a totally new way of accessing that higher functioning part of our brain, so we don’t end up in amygdala hijack, as I like to talk about it, or that place where our most reactive part of our brain has taken over when we’re in an activated stress response. Again, driving us over the cliff on a bus metaphorically in a way that doesn’t feel good.
Pennie: When we think about it logically, wouldn’t it be easier when we think of stress relief if we’re bringing our stress levels down from a six to a two rather than from a 10 to a two? So if we can intervene with our own mind to de-escalate the stress response, sure, there may be a stress response, but if we can de-escalate and de-amplify that response right then and there early on in the process, we have a much easier job when we get to the stress relief part.
Jill: Right. I think that is what directly connects to resilience. When we can lower that stress response, it makes it much easier for us to move through situations instead of getting stuck and overwhelmed in them. That, of course, relates to flexibility and resilience. I think it needs to be said, I know Jen Barna, our CEO and physician often emphasizes and I like to back her up on this, we know that physicians and other healthcare workers are resilient. It’s not that they’re not resilient. It’s that conditions that we’ve experienced under the pandemic for the last two years have challenged even the most resilient people’s resilience. That’s why it’s more important than ever to be able to learn tools to help give you really fantastic skills that are needed for resilience and for lowering stress responses in the most stressful situations. Do I have that right?
Pennie: Yeah, you do. I’ll share with you an analogy that may help this make sense. Resilience is not a static condition. You are correct that people who are drawn to the healthcare field have above average overall levels of resilience, but it’s not static. Intense stress response, persistent stress response over time, and the maladaptive responses we often develop like defensiveness, irritability, skipping meals, the kinds of things developed will create wear and tear on our own resilience. So, what we’re talking about here is protecting this incredible asset that healthcare workers have and strengthening it, fortifying, as if you’re putting on the best PPE you can, facing that firestorm.
Jill: Wow, really well said. I like thinking of it as the best PPE to develop better resilience and to stand against all of those stressors that are just part of what is happening right now if you have a career in healthcare. One of the things that I have to say, having done a lot of work around stress work and with physicians for the last number of years is, I love this particular program. Digital accessibility, meaning that no matter how busy you are as a physician, you can sit down at your computer and in a relatively short amount of time, you’re going to learn these concepts and then put them into practice, you need to in order to complete the program in a way that will change your brain and change your experience, but without having to commit to something that feels really overwhelming. Because right now, time and the capacity to commit to something really big is hard for a lot of physicians. I assume you guys intended that on purpose when you designed that.
Pennie: Oh, yes, sure. We did our homework as far as not only how the brain learns and changes our cognitive responses, but also respecting that this program would need to be very accessible and concise. The modules are very brief and you can stop and start as you want to and then at the end of each level, take some days to implement it in your daily life. That just takes moments in the day. You’re not having to stop what you’re doing, you’re bringing it right into your life.
Jill: Why was it important for you guys to make sure that StressPal would give physicians the opportunity to earn CME credits when they did it or for other healthcare professionals to be able to earn whatever their specific form of professional education is? Why was that important?
Pennie: Well, this is a kind of professional development. We do have the accreditation for physicians, registered nurses, psychologists. Then the inter-professional communication credit is available to all healthcare workers on the team as well as to those professional categories. It was important because we felt we are providing this valuable professional development piece that ideally would be part of your medical education coming in. It’d be one of the things you learn as you embark in this challenging profession is to have in mind and knowledge of the leading intervention strategies in the face of persistent external stressors. So, we felt that was an “add on” that we felt would be important for people to have and we were very honored to have that accreditation process with ACCME go through.
Jill: What is the feedback you are getting from physicians, who are taking the program and completing the StressPal course? What kind of things are inspiring you that you’re hearing from physicians?
Pennie: Oh, we’re very excited about that. We’ve done some analytic analysis of our users, who have completed the course. Learners, as we call them. We’re seeing outstanding feedback. There’re self-reports which are anonymous within the program and there’re also the CME evaluations that are turned in when people go to get their accreditation with the postgraduate institute of medicine. If you take five as an excellent, we’re averaging across about 15 different evaluation criteria of learning objectives, applicability and practice. We’re up there, about 4.5. We’re just right there around. Excellent. We’re seeing that 99% of our learners would recommend this program for their colleagues and their wellness leaders. Actually, we have a 100% satisfaction rate so far. We look to keep that number for the overall program as beneficial in their practice. So, it’s broken down in a lot of categories, but overall, excellent feedback.
Jill: I like the idea of teams, entire organizations learning this at the same time, because I know from experience, when large numbers of people have a better understanding about stress response, flexibility, and resilience, it can drastically change the culture of an organization. Have you guys seen that and experienced that as well?
Pennie: Yes. I was just going to add too, one of the things that we have seen in our comments that people are making to the series, is how it has benefited them in their inter-professional communications. That’s a very intentional goal. I have a deep background in conflict resolution. Of course, conflict resolution rises out of conflicts. There’s tremendous opportunity for conflicts in the healthcare setting, where you have so many levels of operation and structure within the organization and different values and directions that have to be fulfilled along the way. There’s such a polarity that can happen with conflicts that are destructive, but there’s also an opportunity for conflicts to be constructive for people to come to the table and more effectively problem solve and collaborate. That process of coming together to more creatively problem solve and collaborate to solve these drivers of burnout is going to be enhanced when the people in those meetings (which hopefully includes more of the providers and healthcare teams working with management) have some common language around their ability to self-assess and their ability to assess in others.
Each of their capacities, when they observe stress-triggered responses arriving in themselves, to be able to choose more workable strategies. I think that’s the key here. When you increase your capacity for observing, assessing, is this helping me? Is it helping me to achieve what I value? If not, what’s a more workable strategy? If you’re learning how to do that in just moments, well, choosing a more workable strategy as far as helping to resolve these deep underlying conflicts at an organizational level or a team level within the hospital ER is an extraordinarily valuable skill. So, we’re hearing a lot of positive words about how this is reinforcing modeling, and more effective communication, and problem solving.
Jill: Now, you’ve heard why I think this is so fantastic. Tell us why you at StressPal were interested in partnering with us at DocWorking on this DocWorking StressPal Program. What was appealing about this partnership to you and why do you think it works so well?
Pennie: Sure. Oh, that’s a great question. I greatly admire the attention that you’re giving to the coaching piece of this to be one-on-one part. When you integrate these approaches, the opportunity for people to study privately, and enhance their own skills, and then you merge that with the interactive peer support platform that we built on the StressPal Program, and that your team provides the real human beings behind that coaching. Then I know with the Thrive program, you go on to provide one-on-one coaching as well. You’re now taking really what science shows to be the best way to learn and to change. So, you have both the right to private education, you have peer support, you have coaching and the opportunity for one-on-one. Then I know as both organizations are providing for those, who are truly in distress, it’s important to be able to help them get to psychotherapeutic help where that’s appropriate. So, I love that marriage of education, peer support, and coaching.
Jill: Me, too. I love this idea that people will be taking this course, learning, and then they can jump on this online community to have discussions with each other, and then also, with coaches, if they have questions. As coaches, we’re also going to be providing materials, quotes, other things that are inspirational and that we know from our group coaching that we’ve done online with other physicians that they find grounding, inspiring, that helps them focus, and then we can get into some other areas around time management, and things that also play into the tactical-practical part of putting this all into action in their lives. So, it’s been super fun for us to be able to partner with you guys and to be able to share the incredible course that you created with so many different people, and healthcare teams, and institutions and organizations, and then to be there to partner with the physicians who do the program, to support them through coaching and peer support. It’s just really a perfect combination in my opinion.
Pennie: We focused quite a bit on the program earlier. I’m glad you brought up these points. One of the things that we saw, in addition to the personal education we created on a robust active learning platform that organizations can use in a customized way, and as DocWorking is doing to bring in their other wellness initiatives. It’s not just limiting the ability to communicate around stress, and coping mechanisms, and resilience, but also, a place where you could be interacting around other areas that are stressors in life, wether that’s how that impacts work-life balance, or sleep, or nutrition, and these other areas. So, trying to create that opportunity for flexibility in how you educate and how you disseminate information to your team.
Jill: Yeah. You guys have done a great job and it’s been a joy to be able to bring these together and know what an impact it is having and going to continue to have on a broader level. Pennie Sempell, this has been just a great conversation and we really appreciate you taking the time to share your insights, your deep wisdom on this subject, your lived experience of not only seeing the problem of how challenging it can be for people to regulate their stress responses, but to dig in and provide such a meaningful solution. It’s inspirational to us all.
Pennie: Thank you so much, Jill. It’s been delightful to talk with you.
Jill: And if you’re interested in joining and/or learning how you can bring the DocWorking StressPal Frontline Solution to your healthcare team with up to eight continuing education credits and ongoing coaching support on the peer-to-peer platform, email us today at [email protected]ocworking.com. That’s [email protected], and we can bring you and your team on board right away. We want to thank all of you for taking the time to join us today as well. Please tell your friends, colleagues about DocWorking: The Whole Physician Podcast. We love being here to provide meaningful information to you. Until next time, I’m Jill Farmer.
Amanda: I’m Amanda Taran, producer of DocWorking: The Whole Physician Podcast. Thank you so much for listening. Please don’t forget to like and subscribe and head over to docworking.com to see all we have to offer.