Even before the onset of COVID-19, healthcare workers were experiencing increasingly worrisome levels of burnout. Exacerbated and heightened by the global pandemic, these concerns can no longer be avoided or ignored—so much so that the United States Surgeon General recently released an advisory aimed at addressing the healthcare burnout crisis. [I]
To best mitigate the effects of burnout, public health, and healthcare leaders must first understand the current severity of the crisis and its impacts. The following sections will offer some detailed insight into healthcare worker burnout, its repercussions, and what some potential solutions might look like.
What is Healthcare Burnout
Healthcare burnout generally reflects a myriad of widespread, external issues rather than individual, internal ones. U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy explained it best in his report [I]:
“burnout is not an individual mental health diagnosis. Burnout is a workplace issue that calls for systems-oriented, organizational-level solutions.”
That same sentiment is echoed in an article published by the NCBI on the prevalence of burnout in healthcare workers. The report defines burnout as [ii]:
“a work-related stress syndrome resulting from chronic exposure to job stress…consisting of three qualitative dimensions which are emotional exhaustion, cynicism and depersonalization, reduced professional efficacy and personal accomplishment.”
The same study notes that while burnout can occur in any profession, “the incidence seems to be higher in physicians.”
The Healthcare Burnout Crisis
A 2021 Kaiser Family Foundation/Washington Post survey focused on frontline healthcare workers found that 55% of respondents reported feelings of burnout. [iii] All over the country, physicians, nurses, and other health workers are being weighed down by feelings of mental, physical, and emotional exhaustion. These high levels of burnout are being reflected in and simultaneously exacerbated by the healthcare labor shortage.
According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services [iv],
“There is a projected shortage of more than 3 million essential low-wage health workers in the next five years and a projected shortage of nearly 140,000 physicians by 2033.”
And not only can these shortages make healthcare workers’ jobs more difficult and demanding, but they can also significantly impact the quality of patient care. Most recently, the COVID-19 pandemic highlighted and attested to the severity of the healthcare burnout crisis that has been growing for years.
The Healthcare Burnout Impact
The impact of burnout within the health field is twofold: effects on the workers themselves and implications on the patients they care for. As discussed in the healthcare burnout report published by the NCBI [ii],
“consequences of burnout are decreased job satisfaction, absenteeism, turnover in personnel, and cynicism. These effects at work frequently have repercussions on personal life such as feeling unhappy, anxiety, depression, isolation, substance abuse, frictional and broken relationships and divorce.”
With such profound implications, it shouldn’t be surprising that so many burned-out healthcare workers are choosing to leave the health field.
The effects of the burnout crisis on patients can also be severe. According to the Surgeon General’s advisory, healthcare worker burnout can have devastating consequences on patient care through [I] :
“decreased time spent between provider and patient, increased medical errors and hospital-acquired infections among patients, and staffing shortages.”
Stressful and overwhelming work environments “make it harder for patients to get care when they need it.”
Finally, healthcare worker burnout can have financial consequences as well. A 2019 study estimating the cost of physician burnout found that [v]:
“approximately $4.6 billion in costs related to physician turnover and reduced clinical hours is attributable to burnout each year in the United States.”
Whether it be patient care, worker well-being, or cost, it’s clear that the repercussions of the burnout crisis are far-reaching and should be addressed as quickly as possible.
In his advisory report, the U.S. Surgeon General notes that the causes of healthcare burnout are multiple and varied and include a combination of different social, cultural, structural, and organizational factors. [I] Just as there are numerous causes, there should also be numerous solutions to the crisis.
For example, one study by the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality found that [vi]:
“more than half of primary care physicians report feeling stressed because of time pressures and other work conditions.”
Various cultural challenges can and should also be addressed. Dharam Kaushik, MD, the program director of the urologic oncology fellowship in the Department of Urology at UT Health San Antonio, discussed some of these obstacles in a piece he wrote for the Association of American Medical Colleges [vii]:
“systemic racism, violence against Asians, and childcare crises for women in medicine have taken a tremendous toll on the mental and physical health of these minoritized groups during the pandemic. For women in medicine, there has been no respite from work, whether it’s on the front lines with COVID-19 or solving their childcare challenges.”
Developing solutions to these obstacles could help mitigate their disproportionate effects and contributions to burnout in the health field.
These are just two examples of ways healthcare leaders can be working toward minimizing the healthcare burnout crisis. The U.S. Surgeon General’s Health Worker Burnout Advisory provides even more detailed insight into how healthcare organizations, governments, and communities in general can work toward alleviating these issues. [i]
At AB Med, we are here to help you execute initiatives to minimize the healthcare burnout crisis facing your community. Our team of experts is ready to partner with you to develop, create, and launch programs that prioritize the well-being of both healthcare workers and the patients they are committed to caring for. Let’s Connect.
REFERENCES & RESOURCES
- Health Worker Burnout — Current Priorities of the U.S. Surgeon General. [online] Available at: https://www.hhs.gov/surgeongeneral/priorities/health-worker-burnout/index.html.
- De Hert, S. (2020). Burnout in healthcare workers: Prevalence, impact and preventative strategies. Local and Regional Anesthesia, [online] Volume 13(13), pp.171–183. doi:10.2147/lra.s240564.
- 2021 (2021). KFF/The Washington Post Frontline Health Care Workers Survey – Toll of the Pandemic. [online] KFF. Available at: https://www.kff.org/report-section/kff-the-washington-post-frontline-health-care-workers-survey-toll-of-the-pandemic/.
- General, O. of the S. (2022). New Surgeon General Advisory Sounds Alarm on Health Worker Burnout and Resignation. [online] HHS.gov. Available at: https://www.hhs.gov/about/news/2022/05/23/new-surgeon-general-advisory-sounds-alarm-on-health-worker-burnout-and-resignation.html.
- Han, S., Shanafelt, T.D., Sinsky, C.A., Awad, K.M., Dyrbye, L.N., Fiscus, L.C., Trockel, M. and Goh, J. (2019). Estimating the Attributable Cost of Physician Burnout in the United States. Annals of Internal Medicine, 170(11), p.784. doi:10.7326/m18-1422.
- Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (2017). Physician Burnout. [online] Ahrq.gov. Available at: https://www.ahrq.gov/prevention/clinician/ahrq-works/burnout/index.html.
- Kaushik, D. (2021). Medical burnout: Breaking bad. [online] AAMC. Available at: https://www.aamc.org/news-insights/medical-burnout-breaking-bad.
By: Erik McLaughlin MD, MPH and Aikaterini Papadopoulou, B.Arch