Preventing healthcare worker burnout: A critical task for healthcare executives
By: Mady Peterson
Although healthcare burnout has always been a concern, the pandemic drew widespread attention to the problem. As a result, executives are taking action against physician burnout, addressing the root causes of nurse burnout, and looking for innovative ways to ensure burnout doesn’t affect patient care.
A recent survey assessed the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on healthcare worker burnout, and the results were staggering. Most of the participants reported experiencing significant psychological conditions. 74% of participants said they suffered from depression and 38% experienced post-traumatic stress disorder.
Burnout rates in healthcare: An overview of the problem
Burnout has increased significantly throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. High work demands, worker shortages and the pandemic have exacerbated an already significant burnout problem among physicians and nurses.
Healthcare worker burnout among clinicians
Before the COVID-19 pandemic began, physicians were about twice as likely as members of the general population to develop burnout. Around 40% of physicians also reported experiencing depression and suicidal ideation.
More than two years into the pandemic, clinician well-being is worse. According to recent burnout statistics in healthcare, anywhere from 60% to 75% of clinicians have reported symptoms of PTSD, exhaustion, sleep disorders and depression. This has prompted some physicians to leave the profession for good.
Healthcare worker burnout in nursing
Healthcare worker burnout is also a serious issue in the nursing field. Here are 2021 survey results that highlight the prevalence of nursing burnout in the United States:
Nearly 32% of the nurses who left their jobs in 2017 reported experiencing burnout.
Nurses who worked more than 40 hours per week were more likely to experience burnout than part-time or per diem nurses working fewer than 20 hours per week.
Inadequate staffing and working in a stressful environment were the two most common reasons given for leaving a nursing job or thinking about leaving a nursing job.
New nurse burnout is especially concerning for healthcare executives. Hospitals and other medical facilities invest heavily in attracting and training recent graduates. If new nurses experience burnout and leave the profession within two or three years, their employers lose out on the opportunity to recoup these investments. Researchers recently reported that nearly 20% of nurses surveyed experienced “extremely high levels of burnout” within the first three years after graduating from nursing school.
What is burnout?
It’s clear that healthcare worker burnout is a serious problem. But what is it? In simple terms, burnout is the intense exhaustion workers experience after prolonged periods of work-related stress. It starts out with feelings of exhaustion and often causes employees to distance themselves from their jobs.
Some employees also experience feelings of cynicism or negativity toward their job duties or their colleagues. Eventually, due to the combination of physical and psychological distress, employees with burnout become less effective.
Causes of burnout in healthcare professionals
Healthcare worker burnout has several internal and external causes. Executives have little control over the internal factors. However, they have the power to address some of the most common external factors, increasing employee satisfaction and making it less likely that physicians, nurses and other staff members will quit due to severe burnout.
Many employees cite high work demands as one of the most significant contributors to the burnout they’ve experienced. And the pandemic only increased the demands on nurses. Nurses had to care for twice as many patients as usual under extremely stressful conditions.
Poor internal communication is another common problem in hospitals, clinics and private medical practices. When policies aren’t communicated clearly, employees struggle to make decisions. This may lead to serious errors or delays in providing patient care. Poor communication may also increase costs and cause resource wastage.
Additional external factors associated with healthcare worker burnout include:
Negative workplace culture
Lack of resources
Absence of social support
Burnout in the healthcare field can also be caused by internal factors that cause employees to behave in a certain way. Although employees with high standards strive for excellence, they may experience higher levels of stress when they feel that they’ve fallen short, increasing the risk of burnout.
Some healthcare workers also suppress their own needs to ensure patients receive high-quality care. For example, nurses often skip meals or delay bathroom breaks to continue caring for patients and updating family members. As a result, perfectionism and high self-expectations can get in the way of job satisfaction.
These internal factors have also been associated with burnout in healthcare professionals:
Always striving to please others
Having a strong desire for positive recognition
Using work as a substitute for a social life
Effects of healthcare worker burnout
Effects on employers
From an employer perspective, burnout in healthcare employees increases costs and makes it difficult to communicate effectively. Workers who have negative feelings about their jobs may be unwilling to collaborate with others. They may even refuse to take on additional duties when needed.
If the employee experiencing burnout is a manager, their negativity could spread to other employees. This could then lead to reduced morale at the departmental or organizational level. When many employees are experiencing burnout at the same time, it may even indicate that the organization needs to completely overhaul its culture.
Effects on patients
When professional caregivers are physically and emotionally exhausted, they’re more likely to make errors that can have fatal consequences for patients. According to Stanford Medicine, medical errors are three times more common in work units staffed by physicians with high levels of burnout. These errors include ordering the wrong drug, ordering the wrong dosage of a drug, and failure to order appropriate laboratory tests.
Poor patient outcomes can happen more often if a nurse is overworked and experiencing the symptoms of healthcare worker burnout.
Effects on employees
When it comes to burnout, healthcare employees often display behavioral changes in addition to their emotional symptoms. Physical exhaustion, psychological distress and disengagement eventually lead to increased absenteeism, reduced productivity, low levels of motivation and chronic irritability. These all may interfere with an employee’s ability to provide high-quality patient care or collaborate with other team members. In some cases, burnout causes employees to quit the healthcare profession entirely.
How to prevent healthcare worker burnout
Managing stress and preventing burnout in the healthcare workplace can improve patient outcomes, increase employee satisfaction and ensure that all resources are utilized as efficiently as possible. Unfortunately, many executives struggle to develop initiatives that are effective for preventing burnout, reducing stress and improving well-being of healthcare workers. Preventing burnout in the workplace is a worthwhile endeavor. Executives, department heads and other health professionals should consider implementing some of the following suggestions.
Nursing education programs typically focus on helping nurses develop clinical skills and understand the theoretical foundations of the profession. One way to reduce the risk of burnout is to educate nurses on what it is and provide tips for managing work-related stress. Program directors should also consider inviting experienced nurses to discuss their experiences with exhaustion and apathy. This can help inexperienced nurses learn how to avoid burnout in healthcare before they’re exposed to long periods of job-related stress.
Since there is doctor burnout as well, teaching hospitals play an important role in addressing the problem. Each hospital should include burnout in its educational initiatives to ensure that medical students, residents and experienced physicians have an opportunity to learn more about it and recognize the signs of burnout when it occurs. Another recommendation is training hospital employees to supervise medical students, fellows and residents with compassion and empathy.
Mental health resources
Healthcare executives can also prevent burnout in healthcare professionals. They can make sure their hospitals, clinics and medical practices have resources available to help employees manage their stress and improve their mental health. For example, each department’s web page should include a list of outreach programs for employees to contact if they start to experience symptoms of burnout.
Some healthcare facilities are even implementing peer counseling programs to ensure that nurses, physicians and other employees can get support before burnout becomes a serious problem. Just talking with someone who understands the demands of caring for multiple patients under stressful conditions helps some employees feel more engaged, making them less likely to make critical errors or quit their jobs due to high levels of stress.
The COVID-19 pandemic turned healthcare worker burnout into a national crisis. To prevent burnout and keep it from harming patients and employees, hospital executives need to consider whether their organizations would benefit from significant cultural changes. Changing an organization’s culture isn’t easy, but it may be necessary if turnover is high and many remaining employees report experiencing high levels of stress or job dissatisfaction.
To prevent burnout among physicians, healthcare facilities should consider offering flexible work arrangements or limiting physician work hours whenever possible. Creating wellness committees, seeking physician feedback on the work environment, prioritizing positive relationships among employees and providing communication training can help prevent burnout.
Executives should also implement initiatives to address burnout among nurses. Nurse burnout can lead to serious medical mistakes and damage a healthcare facility’s reputation in the community. Reducing nurse-to-patient ratios, allowing nurses to work shorter shifts, encouraging autonomy and making changes to improve communication between departments all have the potential to prevent nursing burnout.
Address burnout to improve outcomes
Healthcare worker burnout isn’t an easy problem to solve, but it’s a problem that can’t be ignored. Because burnout is associated with an increased risk of medical errors, staffing shortages, increased operating costs and reduced patient satisfaction, executives must act immediately to identify effective ways to reduce burnout in healthcare.
Integrating an employee well-being program has proven to be an effective way to mitigate burnout in the workplace. Limeade employee well-being programs help drive participation in activities that can refresh and rejuvenate health care workers at a time when they’re needed most.
Free burnout playbook
Learn more about how to tackle your workplace burnout challenges by visiting our ultimate guide for overcoming employee burnout.