University of Nebraska campuses work together in effort to reduce stress

 A 2017 study published in the Journal of Psychiatric Services has raised alarming concerns about increasing levels of psychological distress among Americans.

Dr. Dan Shipp, vice chancellor for student success and UNO/UNMC

To combat this trend, leaders at the University of Nebraska Medical Center and the University of Nebraska Omaha are working together to reduce student stress and increase student resiliency.

Throughout the summer, leaders from the UNMC and UNO gathered to discuss student, faculty, and staff wellness.

“UNO and UNMC are collaborating in unprecedented ways and what better time to focus on shared resources and interests regarding student, employee, and faculty wellbeing,” said Cathy Pettid, assistant vice chancellor for student affairs at UNO. “Specifically, we have the opportunity to make UNO and UNMC the healthiest campuses in the nation with efforts focused on sleep, mental health, stress reduction, and resiliency.”

During the meetings, the leaders looked at current strengths and opportunities as well as weaknesses and threats.

Some of the weaknesses discussed included getting information to a large number of faculty, students hesitant about asking for help, and a lack of student classes for graduate students. Threats include budget concerns and multiple campuses needing to find time to communicate and to work together.

The good news is that current leadership at both institutions support wellness education and programs and there are wellness electives for students and stress management training for faculty and staff.

“It was an important step to bring key leaders together from both campuses (UNMC and UNO) to begin reviewing what wellness-based educational programs and support services are currently available to students, faculty, and staff. We were also able to dream a little and start thinking about what we need to put in place to ensure that all members of our communities learn to live well and thrive,” said Dr. Dan Shipp, vice chancellor for student success and UNO/UNMC.

“I believe we have a good working mission statement of ‘At UNO and UNMC, we will learn how to live well and thrive,’” Kaminski said. “That statement ties into the Chancellor’s remarks this morning at UNO’s Strategic planning session about preparing individuals to be the best they can be and be lifelong learners.”

Dr. Wengel said training in healthcare could be very stressful, and the anxiety is getting worse.

“We need to be there for our students and prepare them for when they will be practicing medicine,” said Wengel, assistant vice chancellor for wellness at UNMC/UNO.
Also attending the meetings are Rowen Zetterman, associate vice chancellor for academic affairs; Jonathon Sikorski, director of wellness education at UNMC; Charlene Patterson, director, counseling and psychological services at UNO; Jeanne Surface, associate professor, educational leadership at UNO; and Phil Covington, interim assistant vice chancellor of academic affairs/interim director of student success at UNMC, director of student conduct & community standards at UNO.

Along with meeting with leaders are UNO, Dr. Wengel, and Dr. Sikorski have also worked with students at the University of Nebraska Lincoln. In September, Dr. Wengel and Dr. Sikorski met with first-year veterinary students. According to a study published in the Canadian Veterinary Journal and the National Institute of Health, the rate of suicide in the veterinary profession has been pegged as close to twice that of the dental profession, more than twice that of the medical profession, and four times the rate in the general population.

Additionally, Dr. Wengel and Dr. Sikorski have met with groups all across the Omaha Metro to discuss wellness, stress management, and resiliency.

When asked why so many UNMC departments and local organizations have reached out to them for presentations, Dr. Sikorski said leaders are well aware that work stress has become a 24/7 problem.

“There’s a rising tide of stress,” Dr. Jonathon Sikorski said. “You can’t get away from it. Now with our phones, work’s always calling. You could be home at night and still have to deal with the pressures of work. Stress seems to be on the rise, and people are looking for ways to cope.”

UNMC Sonography Program embraces Mindful Pause Practice

Sometimes, people need a few minutes of quiet time.

Kimberly Michael, program director for Diagnostic Medical Sonography at UNMC

Kimberly Michael, program director for Diagnostic Medical Sonography in the College of Allied Health Professions, learned about mindful pause practice last year at a conference she attended with Tanya Custer, an assistant professor in the Department of Medical Imaging and Therapeutic Sciences.

“We heard about some dental hygienist programs who were using mindful pause practice in their curriculum to help reduce their students’ stress, promote wellbeing and improve focus,” Michael said. “We decided to put into our curriculum this semester and next semester and give students three minutes at the beginning of class to calm down after rushing to class from clinics or driving in traffic across Omaha.”

Michael says the thirteen students in her class have embraced mindful pause practice. She admitted that once she forgot to include the mindful pause at the beginning of her PowerPoint presentation, and a student quickly reminded her.

UNMC is not the only sonography program adding mindful pause practice to its curriculum. The University of Nebraska Kearney, the University of Oklahoma, the University of Iowa and the University of Missouri are also adding a few minutes of quiet time to the beginning of some medical imaging classes.

Also to help students focus on meditation during the quiet time, Dr. Jonathon Sikorski spoke with students from the five schools last spring.

This past year, mindful pause practice was put into the curriculum. At the beginning of each specified class, students were given a few minutes where they could gain their focus, and increase their wellbeing.

Michael said another College of Allied Sciences program is considering mindful pause practice as well – the physician assistant program.

“Our goal is to make mindful pause practice part of our students’ daily routine so that after they leave here, they will still use it in the clinic setting and their daily lives. When they are with a patient, and they feel rushed, or they had a tough drive into work they can remember to take that short pause, and that will help them be a better practitioner,” Michael said.


Wellbeing Coordinating Council discusses “The Ecology of Wellbeing”

Dr. Juliann G. Sebastian speaks at the grand opening of the UNMC Health Science Education Complex on the campus of the University of Nebraska at Kearney. Dr. Sebastian chairs the Wellbeing Council.

Below is a column written by Dr. Juliann G. Sebastian:

Many thanks to Assistant Vice Chancellor for Campus Wellness at UNMC and UNO, Dr. Steve Wengel, for inviting me to share some thoughts with you in his inaugural Wellness Newsletter!  As chair of the UNMC Wellbeing Coordinating Council, I am delighted to tell you about the vision and work of this group and to encourage anyone who would like to join to please contact me.  This group, currently composed of 39 members from every facet of UNMC, and from Nebraska Medicine, UNO, and Clarkson College, meets monthly to foster a culture of wellbeing and to link with groups where our work overlaps in powerful and important ways.  We aim to support and complement Dr. Wengel’s work with our joint goals of creating and supporting strategic initiatives to expand wellbeing and wellness throughout our 500 mile-wide campus.  The vision of the Wellbeing Coordinating Council is that UNMC will be the national leader among academic health science centers in wellness.

We began informally in 2015 as several of us started planning what became an annual Wellbeing Symposium, generously supported by Chancellor Gold.  To date, we have held three symposia and are planning our fourth for Feb. 15, 2019.  As time went on, individuals from each college, Nebraska Medicine, the UNMC Faculty Senate and Student Senate, the UNO Wellness Council, and from various staff offices, joined the group.  The growth of this voluntary, interprofessional and interdisciplinary group shows how much interest is present in wellbeing and wellness.  Interestingly, when we have spoken with leaders who have come in from other locations throughout the nation, they usually comment on how important commitment from leadership is to the success of these efforts.  I am proud to say that Chancellor Gold supports this completely and is the person who launched the campus-wide effort, and the vice-chancellors, deans, and directors likewise are completely supportive.  Reorienting a culture that is hard-charging, driven to excellence, and hungry for transformations toward one that supports these same attributes but within a cohesive net of social support and meaningful organizational supports for wellness takes a team.  This work fits perfectly within the iTEACH values, of innovation, teamwork, excellence, accountability, courage, and healing.

The theme for the 2019 Wellbeing Symposium is “The Ecology of Wellbeing”.  Please mark your calendars for Friday, Feb. 15, 2019.  The Symposium will be held at the Scott Conference Center and faculty, staff, students, clinicians, and alumni from UNMC, UNO, Nebraska Medicine, and Clarkson College are all invited.  For the first time this year, we will market the symposium regionally and nationally, with the goal of expanding the national conversations on this vital work.  We are partnering with UNO by planning this symposium the day before their TEDx UNO, scheduled for Sat., Feb. 16, 2019, with the theme of “Resilience”.

I think every unit within the UNMC UNePlan has at least one initiative aimed at wellbeing.  Increasingly, we are going beyond only focusing on what we can do for ourselves as individuals (although that is important, of course!), and addressing how we as an organization can evaluate our culture, policies, system of rewards, and expectations to support wellbeing.  A huge amount of great work is already being done, from the Center for Healthy Living, to the work that Dr. Wengel and Dr. Sikorski are doing, to various initiatives in each college to support students.  The university’s focus on inclusivity is a major contributor to wellbeing as is the growing Healing Arts program and the HR benefits that are available to us, such as Arbor Family Counseling and vacation policies just to name two.  The work UNO is doing with the Medical Humanities also fits into this overall culture and work of supporting wellbeing.

For example, in the College of Nursing, Steve Langan, the Interim Director and Community Liaison for Medical Humanities from UNO, was kind enough to lead us through a poetry-writing session during our Annual Meeting in May.  Steve founded the Seven Doctors Project at UNMC in 2008.  He expertly guided faculty and staff across all five campuses through sharing of themselves through poetry that many of us thought we could not write. “I commend College of Nursing faculty and staff for being willing to be apprentices and to have some fun by creating and sharing an original composition,” Steve Langan said. “I continue to witness the impact of the humanities, arts, and social sciences, particularly for students and colleagues who are on a healthcare track.”

Medical humanities provides one lens for exploring meaning in the work we do and reminding us of the compassion and dedication we bring to this work.  Opportunities in the medical humanities also help reduce the “compassion fatigue”[i] that can be part of our important work as health professionals.

Please let us know if you would like to be part of the UNMC Wellbeing Coordinating Council and please join your college, institute, clinical unit, department, etc. in the many life-enhancing opportunities that are part of a culture of wellbeing!  Our goals are to support one another, prevent feelings of isolation and burnout, and foster joy in our work together.


Sorenson, C., Bolick, B., Wright, K. & Hamilton, R.  (2017). An evolutionary concept analysis of compassion fatigue.  Journal of Nursing Scholarship, 49, 557-563.  doi:10.1111/jnu.1231Sorenson, C., Bolick, B., Wright, K. & Hamilton, R.  (2017). An evolutionary concept analysis of compassion fatigue.  Journal of Nursing Scholarship, 49, 557-563.  doi:10.1111/jnu.12312.


UNMC Anesthesiologist helps doctors deal with stress and burnout

When Sasha Shillcutt, M.D., M.S., was in medical school, she spoke with fellow students for support on days when she felt mentally exhausted. Now, as a physician, she has found a way to replicate those peer supports groups.

Dr. Shillcutt, an associate professor in the UNMC Department of Anesthesiology, started a text group for women physicians to discuss the challenges and stresses of a career in medicine. The text group started with ten doctors. As the group grew, she started a Facebook group. Soon, the ten women physicians grew to almost 9,000 discussing a wide variety of subjects including career advancement, resiliency, and burnout.

“I was surprised,” said Dr. Shillcutt. “I didn’t anticipate having thousands of doctors in the group. When I first started the group, I thought we might increase to thirty women. I allowed everyone to add two people with the plan that we would end up with thirty, but it grew rapidly.”

Sasha Shillcutt, M.D.

Dr. Shillcutt says one of the reasons the online group has grown has been the positive interactions between members.

“The overarching message is positive and encouraging. There is very little negativity in the group. Physicians come into the group, and they may be burned out and stressed, but they find a lot of support. It’s a very uplifting and resilient place.”

One piece of advice Dr. Shillcutt shares in the online group is to find thirty minutes of alone time or an hour a day, if possible. Dr. Shillcutt said even though she’s an extrovert, she needs some alone time to refuel from the stress of her job.

“I’m protective about having thirty minutes to myself every day. I call it my hour of power. I know myself pretty well now, and I can tell when I’m starting to feel burned out. I don’t think you can be in medicine and never feel burned out,” Dr. Shillcutt said. “Burnout is a spectrum. I know when I need to meditate, to write, to take a walk or to exercise. I believe alone time to recharge helps me keep the joy in medicine, and women physicians in the group have learned the same.”

The alone time and online support group keep Dr. Shillcutt invested in her medical career.

“You could be a perfect weight, have the ideal blood pressure, but you could still feel sick from anxiety and depression. Only you know if you’re well or not. If you don’t feel well, you need to do some internal investigation and tell yourself it’s okay to do so. Mental exercise is as vital as physical exercise.”

Dr. Shillcutt wrote about the power of social media and how it provides a platform to bring to light some of the challenges women in medicine face and also allow women to connect in ways not previously possible. The article, titled, “Social Media and Advancement of Women Physicians,” is co-authored by colleague Julie Silver, M.D., Harvard Medical School’s Department of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation.

Dr. Shillcutt’s posts can be found on Facebook at @becomebraveenough and on Twitter at @rubraveenough.

A Message from Dr. Steven Wengel

I am delighted to introduce this inaugural edition of UNMC’s Wellness Newsletter! I’m very glad you are reading this, and I very much hope you’ll find stories to inspire you in your own wellness and wellbeing.

First off, let me introduce myself. I grew up in Omaha and attended UNL as a pre-medical student in the late 1970s. During that time, I picked up a paperback book with the title, “The Relaxation Response,” by Herbert Benson, MD. Dr. Benson is an emeritus professor of cardiology at Harvard University who made his career in studying the beneficial effects of meditation on the human body.

Dr. Steven Wengel, Associate Vice-Chancellor of Wellness for UNO/UNMC

This seminal work of his, published in 1975, made a huge impact on me. In the book, he teaches a simple 10 minute a day meditation technique that his research shows can lower blood pressure, improve sleep, lessen anxiety symptoms, and even change gene expression. I was so struck by his research that I started eliciting the “Relaxation Response” myself as a college student. I found it did in fact help with my stress, and I have continued to use this technique in my own life ever since. I now teach the technique to my patients, and also the students and residents that I work with.

Since February 2018, I’ve been serving as UNO and UNMC’s assistant vice chancellor for campus wellness, alongside Jonathon Sikorski, Ph.D., UNMC’s director of wellness education. We have a lot of exciting projects in the works, which we will start sharing with you in this newsletter. But this is just the start. There are many really innovative wellness activities going on in every UNMC unit, and I want to use future issues of the newsletter to highlight the great work that others on campus are doing. If you are aware of something on campus that improves wellbeing, please let me know so I can help pass the word to others!

So, thanks for taking the time to read this, and I look forward to hearing your feedback and suggestions. Please email me at