What is healthcare worker burnout? Do you think you are experiencing it? The World Health Organization states that it’s not a medical condition, although it is considered an “occupational phenomenon”. As healthcare workers, we are at risk of feelings of exhaustion, poor concentration, cynicism, and feelings of un-accomplishment – the marks of burnout.
First discussed by psychologist Herbert Freudenberger in 1974:
“There is a feeling of exhaustion, being unable to shake a lingering cold, suffering from frequent headaches and gastrointestinal disturbances, sleeplessness and shortness of breath. … The burn-out candidate finds it just too difficult to hold in feelings. He cries too easily, the slightest pressure makes him feel overburdened and he yells and screams. With the ease of anger may come a suspicious attitude, a kind of suspicion and paranoia. The victim begins to feel that just about everyone is out to screw him. …
He becomes the ‘house cynic.’ Anything that is suggested is bad rapped or bad mouthed. … A sign that is difficult to spot until a closer look is taken is the amount of time a person is now spending in the free clinic. A greater and greater number of physical hours are spent there, but less and less is being accomplished. He just seems to hang around and act as if he has nowhere else to go. Often, sadly, he really does not have anywhere else to go, because in his heavy involvement in the clinic, he has just about lost most of his friends.”
It appears that this phenomenon has been occurring for decades if not longer. In order to provide the best care for clients and patients, an understanding of the causes and effects of burnout is necessary.
Causes of Healthcare Worker Burnout
Several studies (sources listed at the end of this article) have found that over 50% of physicians and similar numbers in other healthcare professions report to feeling burnout (numbers are increasing because of the pandemic). Factors involved include too much paperwork, poor work/life balance, spending hours on indirect patient tasks, and being pressed for time in some work environments. These daily tasks appear to increase the likelihood of burnout in healthcare workers.
Administrative Work and Electronic Technology
While charting and other administrative work is important for continuity of care, studies have shown that over 50% of a workday can be comprised of paperwork.
Regulation of documentation has created an environment of healthcare professionals that utilize much of their time on being compliant. Patients have less time with their doctors.
Electronic health records are linked to stress and burnout in the workplace. While it’s nice to be able to use electronic devices rather than paper, it’s been found that the user interface is often complicated and difficult to use. A recent study found that over 50% of a physician’s time was spent documenting electronic health records – more time than that spent with clients.
Healthcare professionals often spend time figuring out how to use an electronic system, as well as keeping up with regular updates. This implementation was meant to ease documentation and continuity of care. But, it appears to increase stress in workers and be less streamlined than originally imagined.
Healthcare Worker Burnout: Lack of Work-Life Balance
On average, healthcare workers spend well over 40 hours a week performing their duties. This tends to decrease overall job satisfaction as well as increase stress.
When a healthcare professional works long hours, they have less time to spend with their families and other non-work tasks. Typically, doing things outside of work tend to reduce worker stress and enhance the quality of life. If there is minimal time for this, then long hours can certainly increase burnout.
Long hours can also affect the ability to take care of oneself. Poor diet, lack of exercise, and a lack of sleep can be an effect of a poor work-life balance. These negative aspects could lead to poor concentration, exhaustion, increased mistakes, and other unhealthy possibilities.
Finding a means of a better balance can help as well as reduce the probability of experiencing burnout.
Pressed for Time
The MEMO study, minimizing error and maximizing outcome, researched quality of care based upon the work environment. The study contained a finding that healthcare workers often reported not having enough time with their patients. This can potentially result in increased errors and decreased quality of care.
The facility sets the pace for some healthcare workers, which requires them to work faster. Workers deal with the fallout, while the place of employment typically focuses on getting the maximum amount of patients/money. The pace is often faster than healthcare professionals prefer, which leads to added stress and burnout.
Healthcare Worker Burnout: Other Important Factors
Elfi.com listed 4 overarching factors of burnout specifically to physicians. They are as follows:
- Relationships: Less involved with patients
- Loyalty: Reduced likelihood of patients staying with one doctor
- Emphasis on profits: Overworked by healthcare facilities
- Student Debt: $192,000 on average for physicians
Preventing Burnout in Healthcare Workers
Knowing the symptoms and causes of burnout is the first step to helping the problem. In order to better care for our clients and patients, we can do our best to intervene and stay healthy as healthcare professionals. Listed below are some helpful suggestions:
Improved Work-Life Balance and Scheduling
Working fewer hours per day could lessen stress and allow healthcare workers to spend time doing activities outside of work. Facilities could also allow workers to have flexible schedules with variable off days that work for the individual.
If healthcare workers can take control of their schedules, they can plan their workday more efficiently. Workers could make time for families or extracurricular activities. This also allows physicians to spend different amounts of time with patients that need various levels of care.
Having control of a schedule means better utilizing time for patients as well as required documentation. This should reduce the stress put on the healthcare worker as well as lessen burnout.
Healthcare Worker Burnout: Talk to Those in Charge
As supervisor quality decreases, the effects of burnout tend to increase. Involving management is an important step in controlling the situation. Addressing the problems of burnout can start if those in charge are informed of the issues.
It’s not uncommon for facilities to hire a position specifically to address the mental and wellness needs of the employees. Having a healthcare advisor for healthcare professionals can be an important step in providing better care for clients as well as improving worker health.
Self-care and Mental Health
Similar to hiring a healthcare advisor, a facility could and should provide a self-care and mental health program. While, as healthcare professionals, we typically think we don’t need a special program for mental health, it certainly would not hurt.
Discussing diet programs, improving available food, and encouraging exercise are simple changes that could occur in healthcare facilities. Addressing these basic healthcare necessities can stop burnout before it starts.
Other Helpful Factors
- Decrease time on electronic devices: Delegate work where possible
- Incentives for workers: Bonuses and other rewards are proven to increase satisfaction (as long as the rewards match employee desires)
- Peer support: Allow peer programs for those experiencing burnout
- Teach: Spread information about the effects of burnout
Healthcare worker burnout is real and preventable. Ignoring the situation is hardly ever the solution to a problem. We’ve committed to the first step of learning about the causes and potential preventative measures involved in this phenomenon. Now, all we can do is try to help ourselves, our peers, and the patients and clients we see on a daily basis.
Sources and In-Depth Data: