Refueling When Your Emotional Tank Is Empty: Addressing Healthcare Worker Burnout

Jan Hailey, MHL, CMC, CMCO, CMIS, CMOM
Director
Ambulatory Care Management
Saint Joseph Health System/Select Health Network
Mishawaka, IN

Burnout, a term used to describe a prolonged response to chronic emotional and interpersonal stress on the job, is a common problem among healthcare workers.1 The main characteristics of burnout include overwhelming exhaustion, feelings of cynicism, and a low sense of personal accomplishment.1 An unhealthy work/life balance, a chaotic work environment, overwhelming job demands, and a feeling of loss of control can all contribute to this phenomenon.

The COVID-19 pandemic put a significant strain on healthcare workers, who rose to the challenge of caring for patients in the midst of a global public health crisis. Not surprisingly, many of these individuals have seen their own mental health and sense of well-being decline as a result of working under very stressful conditions for an extended period of time. There is a plethora of evidence pointing to the emotional toll that these unprecedented events have had on healthcare providers.

For example, a 2021 survey conducted by the Kaiser Family Foundation and The Washington Post, with a nationally representative sample of 1327 frontline healthcare workers from hospitals, doctors’ offices, outpatient clinics, nursing homes and assisted care facilities, and home health agencies, revealed the urgent need to address burnout.2

According to the results, 62% of frontline healthcare workers who responded to the survey said that stress related to COVID-19 has had a negative impact on their mental health. In addition, more than half (56%) of the respondents said that worry or stress related to the pandemic has resulted in sleep disturbances (47%), frequent headaches or stomachaches (31%), or increased use of alcohol or drugs (16%).2

Three-fourths of younger frontline healthcare workers (aged 18-29 years) who responded to the survey said that worry or stress related to COVID-19 has had a negative impact on their mental health and 7 of 10 said they felt “burned out” about work.2

It is important to note that clinicians are not the only ones who are experiencing burnout. It has also affected workers in nonclinical positions, including medical office receptionists, billing staff, and hospital administrators. A WELL Health study of 320 frontline clinical support staff, all of whom communicate and coordinate directly with patients outside of the office, found that almost 9 of 10 (88%) reported moderate to extreme burnout, with more than half (56%) rating their burnout as “high” or “extreme.”3 Nearly two-thirds (63%) indicated that they have considered quitting or switching jobs due to stress caused by patient communication processes.3

Recognizing Symptoms of Stress

It is critical that healthcare workers recognize symptoms of stress, which can make them more vulnerable to burnout. Identifying these signs early on and actively seeking help can build self-resiliency and develop important coping skills. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the following are common symptoms of stress4:

  • Feeling irritation, anger, or denial
  • Feeling uncertain, nervous, or anxious
  • Feeling helpless or powerless
  • Lacking motivation
  • Feeling tired, overwhelmed, or burned out
  • Feeling sad or depressed
  • Having trouble sleeping or concentrating.

Stress may also lead to drug and alcohol abuse as well as suicidal ideation. These serious symptoms require immediate attention and professional intervention.

Developing Effective Coping Skills

Practicing effective coping skills and taking steps to reduce stress can help healthcare workers experience higher job satisfaction and levels of overall happiness. These strategies include the following:

  • Leaning on coworkers and employers. This should include engaging in open discussions regarding job-related stress and how that stress is affecting a worker’s ability to care for patients.
  • Seeking help through employer-provided mental health resources.
  • Letting go of the “superhero” persona. At the beginning of the pandemic, healthcare providers were regarded as heroes. Unfortunately, many are now dealing with dissatisfied patients and the threat of violence in the workplace.
  • Engaging in activities that bring joy, such as rekindling or starting a hobby, spending time outdoors, or learning something new.
  • Making health a priority. This should include getting plenty of sleep and exercise and eating healthy foods. Practicing relaxation techniques such as breathing exercises, meditation, and yoga can also be beneficial.
  • Spending time with loved ones. Being physically present with loved ones reduces loneliness and creates strong emotional support to sustain individuals through life’s challenges.5
  • Taking a break from the news and social media.

Employers play a key role in helping to prevent burnout by creating a healthy workplace culture, providing access to appropriate support services, teaching evidence-based skills for dealing with stress, and maintaining open communication with their staff.

Conclusion

Although the incidence of healthcare worker burnout remains high, there are steps that can be taken to reverse burnout and prevent further burnout before it starts. It is imperative that individuals recognize the early signs of stress, seek professional help when necessary, and learn to practice effective coping skills. It is equally important for employers to come alongside their staff members in the fight against burnout by giving them the support they need, providing a safe and healthy work environment, and engaging them in decision-making processes, which reinforces the message that they are valued in the workplace. These approaches to mitigating burnout can lead to happier, healthier employees, lower rates of employee turnover, and ultimately, better care for patients.

References

  1. Maslach C, Schaufeli WB, Leiter MP. Job burnout. Annu Rev Psych. 2001;52:397-422.
  2. Kirzinger A, Kearney A, Hamel L, Brodie M. KFF/The Washington Post frontline health care workers survey. April 6, 2021. www.kff.org/report-section/kff-the-washington-post-frontline-health-care-workers-survey-toll-of-the-pandemic/. Accessed June 20, 2022.
  3. WELL Health. Clinical support staff burnout linked to patient communication challenges. October 2021. https://wellapp.com/resource/study-clinical-support-staff-burnout-linked-to-patient-communication-challenges/#:~:text=Study%3A%20Clinical%20Support%20Staff%20Burnout%20Linked%20to%20Patient%20Communication%20Challenges&text=Reaching%20out%2C%20responding%20to%2C%20and,stress%20of%20clinical%20support%20staff. Accessed June 20, 2022.
  4. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Support for public health workers and health professionals. December 2, 2021. www.cdc.gov/mentalhealth/stress-coping/healthcare-workers-first-responders/index.html. Accessed June 20, 2022.
  5. Thatcher T. The top ten benefits of spending time with family. March 17, 2020. https://highlandspringsclinic.org/the-top-ten-benefits-of-spending-time-with-family. Accessed June 20, 2022.
Article provided through a partnership with
Practice Management Institute
and
Michigan Society of Hematology & Oncology

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