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Why Healthcare Workers Are Burning Out

Updated: Jan 23, 2023

What Is Burnout?

Even if you love your job, taking on too much work can make you hate it. When we get piles upon piles of work, it's overwhelming. Scientific studies have proved that high levels of stress lead to low work productivity. Since the pandemic, there have been more discussions in the workplace about burnout. The Office of US Surgeon General defines burnout as "chronic workplace stress due to an imbalance between job demands and resources." But did you know that those in helping professions, such as healthcare workers, are the most susceptible to experience burnout?

Burnout In Healthcare Providers

The healthcare profession was hit the hardest during the pandemic. We all saw it. People were getting sick left and right. There were a lot of unknown variables and limited resources. Doctors and nurses on the front line were forced to work incredibly long hours during a scary and very stressful time. This no sleep, heavy workload scenario led to mass burnout for many people working in healthcare. As a result, from August of 2021 to Oct of 2022, over 230,000 healthcare providers in the US quit their jobs. Those who remain in the healthcare field are experiencing delayed burnout in the aftermath of this mass exodus.There's a number of reasons for this: job shortages, working in a high stress environments, excessive workload, and burdensome administrative tasks. The recent "Clinician of the Future" report conducted by Elsevier Health, revealed that 47% of healthcare providers plan to leave their job by 2025.

What Do The Numbers Say?

Responses collected in surveys conducted from June to September of 2020 revealed some significant insights on the impact that Covid had on healthcare workers.

  • 93% of healthcare professionals admitted being exhausted and spread too thin.

  • 45% of nurses said they were not getting enough emotional support.

  • 69% of physicians reported they were experiencing depression, with 13% admitting to suicidal thoughts.

What Are The Symptoms Of Burnout?

Maybe you can relate. You work long hours, consistently have an abnormally heavy workload, and struggle with a healthy work life balance. When you get home you feel exhausted, stressed out, anxious, and/or depressed. You may have trouble sleeping at night or find yourself drinking alcohol to escape reality. If this resonates with you, it may be because you're experiencing burnout. Your body is trying to tell you that it needs a break.

Your Body's Response To Stress

From a physiological standpoint, when we stress adrenaline is released. In the short term, this gives us a needed burst of energy for situations like project deadlines or performing well in sports. However it becomes dangerous when this adrenaline high phase is prolonged. With constant high stress levels, our body's resources slowly become depleted. This is why we can feel totally exhausted from constant stress. If this fatigue is ignored, it can result in greater anxiety, irritability, and self-destructive habits. These symptoms can be warning signs that you're experiencing burnout.

Identifying The Root Cause

Are you familiar with the Upstream Parable? Imagine you're sitting on the side of a riverbank and you see someone drowning. Immediately you jump in the water and save the drowning person. Then another drowning person appears, so you save their life as well. Soon more and more drowning people appear. While the immediate concern is to save the drowning people, at some point the priority becomes going upstream to find where they're coming from. Essentially attacking the problem at it's source. I think this same mentality can be applied to a variety of issues, healthcare burnout included. Instead of treating the symptoms, we need to get to the root cause of the problem. Because just like a wound left untreated, it will fester and get worse if nothing is done. When Covid-19 hit, doctors and nurses put their lives on hold to care for the sick and dying. They took care of us. Now it's time for us to take care of them. But how do we do this?

US Surgeon General Report

In 2022, a report titled US Surgeon General Advisory Addressing Health Worker Burnout was released. In it, Dr. Vivek H. Murthy, the US Surgeon General, suggests several ways to alleviate healthcare worker burnout. This 76 page document goes through a detailed action plan of what healthcare organizations, government, healthcare insurers, healthcare tech companies, academic institutions, friends and family can do to help. I've summarized the main points below with regards to what healthcare organizations can do. If you're interested, you can read the full report here

5 Ways To Reduce Burnout Of Healthcare Workers

(Suggestions for Healthcare Organizations)

1. Make Them Feel Heard & Empowered

Healthcare organizations should be open to suggestions from their employees for ways to improve current workflow and processes. The goal is to make workers feel valued while also making them feel heard. To achieve this, employers must offer responsive feedback on their employees ideas about improvements.

2. Provide Mental Health Services

Healthcare organizations should offer healthcare workers support for their mental well being. This could include after-hours, on demand counseling and additional mental health resources that workers need to maintain a healthy mental state.

3. Ensure They Feel Healthy & Safe

Healthcare organizations can ensure the well being of their employees by offering paid sick and vacation leave for time off. Additionally, they can transition to living wage models to give healthcare providers the pay that they deserve. Another opportunity is explore better ways to monitor daily workload levels to make sure they're not overworked.

4. Reduce Administrative Burdens

Did you know that for every 1 hour a healthcare provider spends with a patient, they have 2 hours of administrative paperwork? This is not okay. Healthcare organizations need to reduce administrative burdens on nurses and doctors. This will allow healthcare providers to spend more time with their patients and ensure they get the care they need.

5. Build A Strong Community of Support

At the end of the day, a company or organization is only as good as their workers. Having a strong, efficient team requires good communication and trust. To improve this, healthcare organizations can introduce better care models between staff and their peers. This allows for collaborative engagements and healthy socialization for healthcare workers who may be feeling unsupported, fearful or lonely.

Healthcare Workers Are The Real MVP

The physicians, nurse practitioners, physician assistants and other clinicians that remain in the healthcare field today deserve a standing ovation. They don't get enough recognition for what they do, but their commitment and dedication to helping others is truly honorable. They (and their families) have made sacrifices to care for those suffering during the pandemic. They've shown selfless, quality care to their patients. And most importantly, in times of great crisis, they have not abandoned ship. We would not be where we are today without them. There are no words to accurately articulate the gratitude and appreciation that I have for everything healthcare providers have done, especially during these last few years. Perhaps with proper actions taken, their burnout can be transformed back to a burning and energizing passion for what they do.

"Addressing health worker burnout is about more than health. It’s about reflecting the deeper values that we aspire to as a society—values that guide us to look out for one another and to support those who are seeking to do the same. Health workers have had our backs during the most difficult moments of the pandemic. It’s time for us to have theirs."

Vivek H. Murthy M.D., M.B.A.

Vice Admiral, U.S. Public Health Service

Surgeon General of the United States


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