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Recognizing and Responding to Burnout in Health Care Settings

By Bradley Lembcke, CMO, Senior Vice President and Chief Medical Officer, St. Luke’s Health

February 23, 2023 Posted in: Leadership

Health care organizations across the country are going through a difficult time right now. The supply of health care professionals is not keeping up with the demand, and it’s a major struggle to provide care to the communities we serve. The main culprit? Burnout. When we ignore or mismanage workplace-related stress, employee burnout often follows. As health care leaders, we need to act before it happens.

According to the American Psychological Association, workplace burnout reached all-time highs in 2020 and 2021. COVID-19 put millions of physicians, nurses and other health care professionals at an even higher risk for burnout than they already were. The American Hospital Association cites research that shows 60% of health care workers in the United States reported negative impacts to their mental health during that time—and some 30% were thinking of leaving the profession

Despite the struggle, it is possible to attract and retain health professionals in the current climate. To do so, leaders must identify threats that may lead to burnout, recognize the symptoms and take necessary steps to help prevent or reverse it.

The Foundation of Burnout

Health care jobs require extreme focus and skill. Many providers work 12-plus hour shifts, and many of their care decisions come with life-or-death consequences. That’s a heavy burden to carry each day, one that COVID-19 clearly exacerbated.

While television commercials heralded health care workers as heroes early in the pandemic, the applause was often distant. Inside hospitals, there was no time for applause. Doctors, nurses, physician assistants and other essential employees were busy stretching their skills. And infected coworkers and changing quarantine recommendations added to the stress as fewer providers were available. 

Those who did work through it went well beyond the provision of medical treatment. Due to limited visitation policies, staff picked up the extra responsibility of providing emotional support to a steady stream of seriously ill patients. It was heartbreaking to care for patients who couldn’t have visitors, especially during their last days. Our team members served as their companions, and that took an emotional toll. For many, that toll amounted to burnout.

Identifying Health Worker Burnout

We all know burnout among health care workers didn’t originate with the pandemic. It’s been with us for generations. But have we paid close enough attention to the causes and symptoms?

Reasons providers are struggling include:

  • Feeling controlled by work and unable to enjoy life outside the hospital or clinic

  • Inflationary factors that require physicians to see more patients for less profit

  • Lack of appreciation

  • Long hours

  • New regulations requiring additional paperwork

The reason most people enter health care is to be face-to-face, side-by-side with patients, caring for them. Now, they’re stuck on the computer most of the time, with their backs to patients. This part of the job has increased significantly, and it doesn’t bring joy.

As a result, older employees are trading in their scrubs for loungewear, while younger health professionals are changing careers in search of well-defined start and stop times. Detecting and addressing burnout before this stage can ease the Great Resignation so many of us are experiencing right now. Burnout, defined as an “occupational phenomenon” by the World Health Organization—is included in the ICD-11 but not classified as a medical condition. It entails three troubling phases:

  • Face time with physicians, nurses and other staff members. It takes time, but your experts are worth it, and they genuinely appreciate the effort.

  • Open doors. Make mental health resources available and encourage their use.

  • Set proper expectations. As new employees come onboard, make it clear what their responsibilities entail. 

  • Source out administrative tasks. Hire a scribe for the physicians who struggle to manage the growing mound of paperwork they have to handle each day. 

Finally, keep perspective. Sometimes, disciplinary action is appropriate, but there are many things to consider. Quality or behavioral issues may signal someone is at risk for or actively experiencing burnout. If you treat these issues as reasons for disciplinary action, you reinforce someone’s desire to leave. Instead, take a step back and remember—some of these experts have worked 30 days in a row without sleep. Like you, they’re only human. Treat them as such and you may stop burnout from developing or progressing. Act fast and get to the heart of the issue. Earn their trust and gain a loyal team for years to come.




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