What do healthcare professionals do when they fall sick? In the post-pandemic world, they work. Despite their unmet physiological needs and deteriorating mental health during the pandemic, these wellbeing workers went to work. Health care worker burnout rises out of such conditions. It takes a long period of time for burnout to set in, and even longer to overcome it. Healthcare worker exhaustion is a major crisis in the post pandemic world.
Health care worker burnout rises out of chronic work related stress.
It severely affects the general health and life quality of an individual. This systemic healthcare worker exhaustion is not a new phenomenon. The pandemic was a major factor that magnified the already existing issues for healthcare workers.
So, how does burnout happen? What can one do to support healthcare workers, and help combat burnout? Read along to find out.
Table of contents
- Make contingency plans for future emergencies:
- Establishing peer groups to support healthcare workers:
- Employee participation in work-related decision-making:
- Creating more efficient feedback systems:
- Reassess team-level structures:
- Effective leadership:
Statistics around burnout among health care professionals tell us a gloomy story. What lessons can we learn from it?
Out of a study of almost 21,000 healthcare workers, 49.28% of them reported signs of burnout. The study also concluded that female healthcare workers were generally more at risk of anxiety, depression, and burnout. Another study indicated that out of 26,000 participants, 48% showed signs of at least one of the mental health issues among healthcare professionals – anxiety, depression, suicidal ideation, and PTSD.
What do these numbers tell us?
These numbers are an indication of poor working conditions. The burden of burnout among health care professionals is for institutions to carry and manage. Healthcare professionals are at a high risk of quitting their jobs, succumbing to depression, and committing suicide. A profession that gives so much to the world is going through the very crisis it is working to avert.
Burnout in healthcare professionals is here to stay. Did the pandemic worsen it?
A steep decline in physical and mental health during the pandemic was the major cause of depression and anxiety, and the most affected sector was healthcare. Healthcare worker exhaustion was one of the major consequences of the pandemic. Now, the health care worker burnout rate is at an all-time high despite the subsiding pandemic and relatively better working conditions. So, while the overall death rates are decreasing, our health care worker burnout crisis keeps spreading.
One’s basic physiological needs start getting affected once burnout sets in. So, even though the well being workers get paid, save lives, and do their part, they are exhausted beyond instant recuperation. No weekends or incentives can replace healthcare worker exhaustion once an individual starts showing signs of burnout.
Was burnout not a major issue for healthcare professionals before the pandemic?
Being a healthcare worker already came with the understood occupational hazard. However, the Covid-19 outbreak threw off whatever semblance of normalcy healthcare workers had. Moreover, it worsened already existing individual and institutional issues. Healthcare professionals were forced to do more than their share. Healthcare systems were already jammed with backlog cases, underpaid and overworked hours, and a lack of institutional support. Unfortunately, they were not given the resources and tools to manage the stress and burden of the said roles. This became the primary factor behind healthcare workers’ burnout.
Burnout quietly crept in the house with the pandemic and never left. Has the healthcare industry been able to cope?
Burnout does not happen overnight. It is an intense state of exhaustion that develops gradually with increased pressures from work, and an inability to efficiently handle that stress. It is projected in individuals, but it rises out of institutions. The absence of proper support leads to a steep decline in the general health and lifestyle of the individual.
After physical wellbeing, mental health during the pandemic was a crucial discussion point. People around the world had a chance to seek out support groups. However, healthcare workers did not have the same luxury because of the pandemic workload.
Everyone at this point in the 21st century might have experienced some level of burnout. There are thousands of posts on social media talking about burnout. Life coaches with advice, personal anecdotes, and burnout memes are common. Everyone knows about the condition. But according to a 2022 study, physicians and nurses have the highest burnout rates in the latter years of the pandemic. This should not come as a surprise to anyone. The consequences of poor working conditions are starting to show up.
How does burnout affect healthcare professionals?
Factors such as isolation, the continuous risk of infection, healthcare worker exhaustion, and declining mental health during the pandemic led to increased reports of burnout. The covid-19 crisis demanded these well being workers to put their lives on the line for the patients. This meant they had to give a backseat to their general health and a sustainable work-life balance.
Is everyone affected in the same way?
According to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, an individual is motivated by a set of needs that do not overlap. Moreover, different individuals have different needs. This means that equitable treatment of said needs is the only way a person can thrive. No two individuals experience burnout the same way. Their needs and environments dictate how they handle the crisis.
Burnout manifests differently in different people. It depends on various factors: perfectionism, emotional intelligence, support system, and the ability to delegate and manage work-related stress. So, while two people might be experiencing the same set of working conditions, their responses could be drastically different.
In a group of burnout individuals, one could experience symptoms like anxiety and low motivation. While another individual could display more drastic and life-threatening signs like depression and suicidal ideation. No case of burnout is the same.
Anyone experiencing burnout would exhibit a few of these signs —
- Lack of motivation
- Feelings of disillusionment and helplessness
- No sense of accomplishment
- Obsession over mistakes
- Substance abuse to suppress unwanted and overwhelming emotions
- Lack of sleep
- Easily triggered by even small instances of stress
- A cynical view of life
- Feelings of anger towards the job or coworkers’
Burnout doesn’t just affect productivity, but the general health and lifestyle of the individual. Their attitude towards their career becomes disappointing, and they no longer feel involved in their own lives.
Mental health issues among healthcare professionals that arise out of burnout syndrome
A burnout state leads to feelings of anxiety, depression, and in extreme cases, suicide. This state makes it difficult for people to lead a balanced lifestyle and manage their jobs. Along with the emotional fatigue, physical exhaustion sets in. This means even the most basic acts like preparing a meal, or getting gas for your car feel burdensome. Burnout does not merely affect the work-life balance, but the overall quality of life of an individual. This is a very crucial factor for healthcare organizations. Optimum patient care depends on the mental and physical wellbeing of healthcare workers.
Steps to combat burnout on an individual basis
The hustle culture of the 21st century glorifies perfectionism and long working hours. There is a constant need to do everything yourself and take on more than you can bite to remain busy, and thus, useful. These are the conditions that help fester burnout. However, there are steps you can take to ensure it does not affect your general health and lifestyle.
- Manage your work expectations
- Prioritize your work and set boundaries
- Ask for help; talk to people around you
- Regular exercises
- Practice mindfulness
A healthcare worker’s burnout affects the whole organization
A clogged-up healthcare system affects not only its workers but patient care as well. This negatively impacts the quality of performance, productivity, attendance, and patient satisfaction. This is not an individual but an institutional crisis.
Regardless of individual efforts, the major support that our well being workers need has to come from institutions. An individual is not responsible for the burden a job puts on them. If one is unable to shift out work-related stress, they will be unable to meet the expectations they have set for their lives.
A recent study led by the American Association of Critical-Care Nurses took a survey of 6000 critical and acute care nurses. 66% had considered leaving their profession in the wake of the pandemic.
What can institutions do to support healthcare workers?
1. Make contingency plans for future emergencies:
The Covid-19 crisis managed to shed light on various weak points in our healthcare systems. Institutions should review emergency protocols and come up with a new set of rules to eliminate work overload. More preventive measures will ensure that workers are not overburdened, and thus perform their best. This will further ensure better patient care as well.
A study suggests that establishing a sustainable supply chain would make sure that hospitals do not run into shortages. Regular online consultations, regional separation, and epidemic prioritizing would ensure healthcare workers are not overburdened. Another study suggests that adding contractual staff during the high-demand season and non-traditional staff for inpatient care would significantly reduce the workload.
2. Establishing peer groups to support healthcare workers:
Arranging mental health support networks and groups for employees where workers can unload and share with their colleagues. A peer support group will ensure that everyone is able to voice their concerns and receive compassionate responses.
3. Employee participation in work-related decision-making:
Employees’ feedback and suggestions should be a regular part of organizational decision-making. Healthcare workers have first-hand experience with the working conditions of an institution, and thus they are the best source of feedback.
3. Creating more efficient feedback systems:
This will help employees to frankly reach out and disclose workplace issues. Hospitals and administrations could offer anonymous feedback systems. Moreover, employing tools and surveys where the administration is able to gauge the emotional wellbeing of an individual is another incredibly effective solution. Tools like Pietential make it easy to make and break down surveys. Such feedback results help employers in visualizing and analyzing the workplace hurdles their employees face. Additionally, an anonymous system keeps everyone assured that there will be no space for backlash or biased behavior.
4. Reassess team-level structures:
Reviewing existing team structures and dynamics can help managers figure out the gap in communication. Factors such as collaboration and sharing of the workload in teams should be regularly reevaluated.
5. Effective leadership:
Organizations should hire leaders who show initiative towards creating a better working environment for employees. A synergetic relationship between employees and employers will make the healthcare institution run smoothly. A democratic or transactional leadership will ensure that all employees have a stake in decision-making, and their needs are heard. Leaders who are accommodating, compassionate, and empathetic make efficient leaders.
Burnout is not permanent. Even though physical and mental health during the pandemic declined drastically, there are ways to combat it. More importantly, the crisis of healthcare worker exhaustion and the ultimate burnout is a red flag for not just the organization but for patients as well. So, although there are steps one can take to fight off burnout individually, the major support healthcare workers need has to come from institutions themselves.
1. What is burnout?
It is a syndrome that rises out of chronic work-related stress. If not managed, it could lead to severe issues like anxiety, depression, and even suicide.
2. How long does burnout last?
Burnout may last from months to years depending on the kind of stress an individual is under, and the kind of support that they receive.
3. Can burnout be cured?
Yes, recovery is possible. There is no quick way to fix it, however, by managing stress and re-evaluating your workload you can start your journey toward recovery.
4. What are the early signs of burnout?
Lack of motivation, physical and mental exhaustion, lack of sleep, and anxiety are some of the early symptoms to look out for.