Moral Distress of Health Professionals: What it is and why it matters
Moral distress can be understood as the psychological, emotional and physiological suffering that health professionals may experience when they act in ways that are inconsistent with deeply held ethical values, principles or commitments. It is associated with a variety of situations, states, and activities e.g. clinical situations involving futile treatments, institutional policies and resource constraints; states such as powerlessness, guilt, anger and alienation; activities such as moral wrong-doing, omission and moral compromise. In the last three decades, considerable theoretical and empirical research has been undertaken on the topic of moral distress among health professionals and the evidence suggests that it contributes to staff demoralization, desensitization and burnout and, ultimately, to lower standards of patient care.
In this paper, I will explain the key features of moral distress and discuss some of the challenges associated with undertaking research on this phenomenon. I propose that moral distress is best viewed as a conceptual tool that draws attention to the socio-political and
contextual features of moral agency and brings to the fore the emotional landscape of the
moral realm of health and allied professionals. This view of moral distress orients us to attend to dimensions of the working lives of health professinals that are generally ignored or neglected to the detriment of their well-being and, ultimately, patient safety and care. Given the increasing pressure on health professionals worldwide to meet efficiency, financial and corporate targets, I will argue that further philosophical and empirical research on moral distress is timely and important.