Healthcare burnout was a problem before the pandemic, but COVID-19 exposed what was a growing issue as a full-blown crisis. In April 2021, The Washington Post reported that 3 in 10 healthcare workers are considering leaving their profession altogether, and 6 in 10 report that pandemic-related stress has harmed their mental health. This is of course aside from the more than 3,600 healthcare workers that were lost to COVID-19 — a hugely significant and tragic loss. 

Definition of Burnout

The term “burnout” is perhaps more widely used than it should be, but no industry has seen more of an increase than the healthcare industry. The COVID-19 pandemic has tested and pushed every aspect of our industry — some beyond repair. Strictly speaking, “burnout” refers to a level of exhaustion and apathy that someone feels when coping with prolonged workplace stress. Burnout is different from just stress, which can be short-term or situational. Burnout is persistent stress that makes professionals question their place. The World Health Organization (WHO), defines burnout as a combination of these three things

  • Feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion;
  • Increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one’s job; and
  • Reduced professional efficacy

It’s an unfortunate reality in medicine, even before the COVID-19 pandemic, but especially after. Working in healthcare can wear you down over time, with financial stress, long hours, lack of sufficient sleep, and the emotional burden of being on the front lines of human suffering. Adding a yearlong pandemic to that, and we’re facing a historic crisis of mental health and staffing in the healthcare field. There’s a lot online about what individuals can do to manage their own burnout in healthcare, but alleviating burnout will always require structural changes —  the healthcare industry was struggling with this problem before, and like many things, the pandemic exacerbated existing conditions. It should also be noted that female clinicians experience burnout at a higher rate than their male counterparts — in October 2019, the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC) reported that “40% of women physicians go part-time or leave medicine altogether within six years of completing their residencies” — and this research was pre-pandemic. 

We weren’t adequately prepared to handle a pandemic, and the industry reckoning that will follow will be significant. However, there has been some promising movement: the National Academy of Medicine recently launched its Clinician Well-Being Knowledge Hub, a comprehensive resource repository that provides clinicians and health system leaders with valuable resources to combat clinician burnout in their organizations and personal lives.

Lesson #1: We need to talk about healthcare worker burnout.
Medicine is a competitive field, and there’s often stigma around admitting that you’re struggling. It’s important to be candid with yourself about where you are: talking through your challenges with loved ones and even journaling can be helpful tools to orient yourself and provide a foundation for your plan. Physicians should be candid with each other about how they’re feeling — having a peer as a sounding board will certainly help you process your feelings, and that support network is crucial. 

Having a peer as a sounding board will certainly help you process your feelings, and that support network is crucial.

Lesson #2: Healthcare leadership needs to consider not how it will promote wellbeing in the workplace, but how they’ll enforce it.
While much of the country has “opened back up,” healthcare workers aren’t feeling relief. With the threat of the Delta variant looming and the trauma of the last year, healthcare leadership and hospitals need to take action now to identify healthcare burnout symptoms and provide resources for those experiencing the effects of trauma and PTSD.

Lesson #3: Relieving healthcare burnout will require fundamental shifts in how the healthcare industry is structured, and how it operates.
Physicians themselves can only do so much — the truth is that healthcare burnout is complex and will require multi-faceted solutions that address the problem from multiple different angles. Hospital leadership needs to acknowledge this crisis and create opportunities for physicians to share, and listen to them when they communicate needs and boundaries. One of the most important stress relievers — staffing — is particularly difficult to solve for. The physician pipeline is at least a seven-year process, representing a huge challenge for the industry. 

In the short term, encourage as many people to get vaccinated — physicians and healthcare workers are watching the vaccine-hesitant get sick and in many cases die from COVID-19. The trauma cannot be understated. 

If you or a healthcare worker you know is struggling with burnout and mental health, volunteer psychiatrists are offering free peer support at the Physician Support Line at 888-409-0141, seven days a week from 8 a.m. to 1 a.m. EST. 

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