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Burnout in Healthcare Workers: How to Prevent It
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Recruiting & Hiring

How to Prevent Burnout in Healthcare Workers

One-Minute Takeaway

  • Burnout is a “long-term stress reaction marked by emotional exhaustion, depersonalization, and a lack of a sense of personal accomplishment.”
  • A workplace wellness program could help with burnout.
  • Healthcare worker burnout could result in serious safety concerns and life-threatening consequences.

Nearly 1.7 million people quit healthcare jobs in this year alone, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. And, while there are several factors contributing to the exodus, burnout tops the list.

What is Burnout?

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services defines burnout as “…a long-term stress reaction marked by emotional exhaustion, depersonalization, and a lack of a sense of personal accomplishment.”

When someone is burned out, they not only feel chronic stress, energy depletion and cynicism at work, they also lose the desire to perform even the most basic tasks with any attention. And in a field like healthcare this can have serious safety concerns and life-altering consequences.

So, what can be done now to prevent burnout? To find the answer, let’s first explore what burnout is, where it comes from, how it’s impacting patient care, and what can be done about it.

Why is Burnout So Prevalent in Healthcare?

To understand how to combat burnout, you must know what’s driving it. In the current climate of healthcare, there are many environmental stressors that contribute to burnout. Here’s a brief overview.

  • Pandemic Exhaustion
    Like so many employment trends, the pandemic only made the long-term shortage of healthcare workers worse. McKinsey predicts that by 2025, the U.S. will have a gap of 200,000 to 450,000 nurses available for direct patient care. Hospitals and doctors’ offices are feeling it, with every role stressed to the max. When chronic understaffing meets COVID and flu season, healthcare workers are driven to burnout.
  • Processes
    The medical industry is in a tremendous moment of change as it turns to technology for medical record management, telehealth appointments, testing, note taking and other tasks. This means that healthcare workers are in a near-continuous circle of learning new systems and processes leaving some providers with a mounting level of frustration as they spend more time with electronic “paperwork” than with patients.

How Can You Tell if a Health Worker is Experiencing Burnout?

There isn’t any one red flag that a health worker will display that will indicate they are burned out. Rather, it’s a series of things that, when linked together, can point to a larger problem. For example, if someone is consistently unable to focus; misses deadlines; ignores meetings or only partially completed tasks, it can signify burnout. Other signals can be insensitivity, a lack of appropriate emotions and higher levels of cynicism.

Symptoms of Burnout

In 2019 the World Health Organization (WHO) officially added “burnout” to its International Classification of Diseases. Like nearly every other disease on that list, burnout doesn’t just happen overnight. There’s a progression and that progression hits differently for everybody. While there’s no definitive way to tell what levels of burnout a person may be fighting, there are some common markers to watch for.

  • Trouble sleeping
  • Constant fatigue
  • Emotional exhaustion
  • Growing detachment
  • An increasing feeling of dread as your shift time approaches
  • Apathy over the day-to-day processes at work
  • Lack of concentration
  • Increased irritability
  • Shortness of temper
  • Psychological distress
  • Overwhelming feeling of anxiety
  • Excessive absenteeism
  • Negative attitude
  • Acute distress

“Burnout among health workers has harmful consequences for patient care and safety. This includes decreased time spent between provider and patient, increased medical errors and hospital-acquired infections among patients, and staffing shortages.”

Dr. Vivek Murthy, U.S. Surgeon General

The effects of the severe burnout of a provider are not just felt by the healthcare worker who is experiencing those severe levels of occupational stress. Their colleagues, patients and patient families, as well as their own families are all affected. The system itself also feels the strain of a provider who is no longer performing at an acceptable level, if they even remain in a practice.

How Can You Help a Health Worker Who is Experiencing Burnout?

In a word: support. If healthcare workers are part of a larger network, hospital administrators and HR leaders could look to implement policies to help prevent and alleviate stress among staff such as planning activities that foster better coworker relationships, creating an employee support network, and structuring shift duties to make sure providers have time to recharge between shifts.

Conversely, if those healthcare workers are in a smaller, more self-managed practice it’s important for them to stay connected to their support system and the broader healthcare community. A workplace wellness program could be considered as well.

And in all cases, patients have a role to play by being kind, respectful and supportive of their healthcare providers.

4 Ways to Deal with Healthcare Worker Burnout

There is no magic, immediate change that can be made to eliminate burnout in medical providers. Instead, there are a series of changes and adjustments that need to be made. These range from the way that healthcare providers approach their own health-related needs to adjusting our expectations as patients.

Ways to Prevent Burnout (or How to Help Heal the Healers)

  1. Be Proactive — The first step is to actively look for things that can lead to burnout and address those issues before they become problems. Administrators and HR professionals must also work to de-stigmatize burnout and help care providers feel comfortable identifying stressors and giving feedback without fear of judgment or reprisals. Giving everyone a ‘voice’ in the organization will go a long way toward preventing burnout.
  1. Develop Detachment Areas — Create areas where providers can step away from occupational stresses. For example, set up a quiet area for:
    • Listening to music
    • Doing yoga
    • Performing breathing exercises
    • Undertaking light workouts
    • Relaxing with arts-and-crafts

Note that it may not be enough to just have this space available, you may have to schedule time in it until its use develops into part of the daily routine.

  1. Delegate Duties — Look for ways to spread responsibilities so that no single person is tasked with consistently handling the most stressful tasks.
  1. Encourage Professional Help — Doctors have long struggled to take to heart the advice they give to hundreds of patients each year: “If you’re not feeling well, talk to someone.” To encourage healthcare providers to break that tradition, we have to make it “ok” for them to seek help when they need it. The American Medical Association (AMA) is leading this charge by “…accelerating a cultural shift that prioritizes healthcare workforce well-being…”

To combat burnout of healthcare workers, you might want to take a holistic look at your organization. Where can stress be relieved? What additional support platforms can be put into place? One simple way to start is by streamlining work-related processes with the right HR technology. Paycor helps your organization improve its efficiency, alleviating stress to do vital tasks proficiently.