Jobs in healthcare have long come with high levels of stress and fatigue. Recent years have had an even deeper impact on the wellbeing of everyone from practitioners to front-line workers to administrative staff. Burnout has become more and more commonplace, along with the expectation that leaders in the healthcare space be proactive about addressing it.
What is Employee Burnout?
The numbers are stark and demand our attention. One survey from late 2021 of more than 500 healthcare workers revealed they were reporting clinically serious mental health issues in significant numbers. Nearly three-quarters had challenges with depression, while the same number were experiencing anxiety; thirty-eight percent described themselves as having post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Most worryingly, fifteen percent reported thoughts of self-harm or suicide in recent weeks.
Healthcare employee burnout impacts more than individuals. It affects healthcare organizations in efficiency, outcomes, and safety. It also has a major role in worker satisfaction and retention, which are crucial in today’s labor market. Doing something about burnout starts with understanding what it is.
The Signs and Characteristics of Burnout
A document published by the National Institutes of Health summarizes the work of pioneering American psychotherapist Herbert Freudenberger, who as early as the 1970s observed and defined the concept of burnout. He framed it as a condition arising from both the heightened stress and elevated expectation of “helping” professions, such as healthcare. Burnout is defined by three main characteristics:
- Exhaustion in the deep sense: feeling drained both physically and emotionally, with a feeling of not being ready to meet everyday challenges. Physical problems can also manifest as pain and gastrointestinal distress.
- Alienation from work and work-related tasks. This can lead to a disturbing feeling of cynicism about daily responsibilities, or a sensation of depersonalization from colleagues and people who show up needing help.
- Inefficiency and reduced performance that can start on the job and then creep into other zones of responsibility such as family life. This can come with difficulty concentrating, a negative attitude toward necessary tasks, and an inefficiency and lack of creativity.
Employee Burnout in the Healthcare Space
Because of systemic strains and the nature of the field, burnout was already occurring in the healthcare space before the COVID-19 pandemic. Since then, the problem has become more prevalent. One survey showed that forty-six percent of healthcare workers said their mental health worsened during the pandemic, while in another, forty-two percent said their daily lives were suffering in connection to COVID-19.
The most common sensation linked to burnout is feeling overwhelmed by responsibility. It doesn’t happen overnight, and healthcare workers are particularly susceptible—not only because of the high level at which they are required to function, but also because of the idealism, empathy, and compassion that often draw people to the field. Burnout can be exacerbated by a sense of not living up to the expectations one has for oneself.
Just as burnout doesn’t manifest overnight, relief doesn’t happen with the snap of a finger. Individuals can look at their own burnout as something that can at least in part be addressed by self-care: good sleep, nutrition, exercise, social connection, and mindfulness or spiritual practices.
How Leadership Can Help
Leaders in the healthcare sphere have a responsibility to their organizations and workforces that are specific to the field. Ways of addressing burnout in healthcare workers can include:
- Staying connected to staff. This can mean regular meetings, anonymous surveys, or peer connection intended to build an honest and transparent dialogue.
- Communication around opportunities and challenges, including evaluating promotion and ongoing training opportunities to keep people engaged.
- Prioritizing technological solutions, from the examination room to the billing office. Tech systems, with the right emphasis, training, and application, can reduce burdens, maximize efficiencies, and keep people focused on what’s most important.
- Examining workflow and daily responsibilities, with an eye to reducing siloes and increasing commonsense solutions generated from every level of the organization.
- Having a more “horizontal” organizational orientation, looking for input and innovation from everyone. This can include regular “checking-in” meetings as well as involving Human Resources in tracking employee satisfaction and feelings of empowerment.
In a sense, burnout is like a flashing warning sign on the dashboard of a car: a problem, to be sure, and a serious one. But it also presents an opportunity to create organizations as healthy as the people they serve, with the intentionality and purpose that come with the best of the “helping” professions.
Looking for Solutions to Combat Burnout at Your Organization
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