Diagnosing an illness takes training, years of study, and a skilled eye. And sometimes even the best doctors still have a tough time determining what ails you. But if you walk down the halls of almost any hospital corridor today—well, even a first-year medical student can see that a major issue today is burnout.
Burnout Among Healthcare Professionals During the Pandemic
Burnout in healthcare workers is, of course, nothing new. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, evidence suggested that nearly half of all physicians and nurses experienced symptoms of burnout. At the institutional level, burnout was already contributing to greater job turnover, a dramatic decrease in workforce efficiency, a rise in malpractice suits, and increased mortality rates. That was business as usual prior to March 2020.
But as we all know, things have gotten more challenging for healthcare professionals since then. It’s become clear that scores of care professionals are exhausted and exposed like never before.
In some ways, this was a long time coming. The ecosystem of healthcare organizations has always involved long hours and stress (hello, residency). But we’re at a point where we can’t be passive about fatigue and fog.
Fortunately, we don’t have to. Change is possible, and you can take steps to mitigate this crisis of burnout in healthcare. Here are some short-term and long-term solutions to consider.
Change is possible, and you can take steps to mitigate this crisis of burnout in healthcare.
Short-Term Solutions to Burnout in Healthcare
What are the signs of burnout in healthcare workers? People who feel burned out often say they feel empty inside and lack support. They feel they are going through the motions and have little to look forward to. Unerringly, their performance suffers as their mental health fissures. That’s not good in any workplace, but in healthcare, it’s downright dangerous.
To tackle burnout in healthcare, you can take these immediate actions:
- Be more active about offering mental health resources. Do your employees know about your mental health programs? If the answer isn’t an immediate and resounding “of course they do,” then start promoting them. Your employees need to know you care about them. When they feel supported on all levels, they feel more comfortable asking for help, which is exactly what you want. It’s better to have a team member who’s open about needing help than to have one suffering in solitude.
- Work to ensure your colleagues have their basic needs met. This can mean many things depending on what’s going on in your organization, but in essence, the question to answer is: do your team members have the tools they need to do their jobs? That means the right supplies, that means time off, and that means professional development. Impress employees by doing whatever you can to support them in the workplace, insist they take that day off and make sure they are learning what they need to know to thrive now and advance later. If you can show your team members you have their backs and you care about their futures even amid today’s challenges, you won’t just suffer through COVID together; you’ll be building a future together.
- Promote workplace and departmental connectivity. We know you’re always trying to promote collaboration–just don’t let that fall off now. Keep encouraging people to work together and across departments, and keep fostering an atmosphere of shared vision and accountability. When team members feel like all the responsibility is being dumped on them and they have too much responsibility–well, there’s only so much any of us can take. Yes, the struggle is real, but it will only get worse if we stop helping each other out.
- Ensure colleagues have scheduled time off. Even though on many days it feels like all hands are needed all the time, and even though many of your best team members may be inclined to always want to help, you need to make sure everyone has time to rest and recharge. Insist on days off, and insist people take their paid time off.
Long-Term Changes to Combat Burnout
Short-term fixes will help with the here-and-now, but really dealing with burnout in the long term will require some big-picture changes.
Ultimately, system leaders will need to commit to their healthcare colleagues in new and innovative ways. The workplace should be a dynamic place that sparks energy, not a gauntlet that saps it. You may not be able to save every fraying colleague, but you can make changes that give your team members the tools they need to take care of themselves and feel good about their work and the workplace.
Here are some ideas:
- Think systemically. You can’t treat burnout on a wide scale by thinking of it in individual terms. You need to consider ways to improve the system and organizational framework in which medicine is practiced. There’s a lot of bureaucracy, record-keeping, and minutiae to deal with in healthcare. And while some of that is necessary, more than anything providers want to help patients. So try and make it easier for them to do just that. We know this is easier said than done, but small, deliberate changes can have a big impact over time.
- Promote a culture of efficient leadership through additional training and support. Strong leaders create positive impacts on their teams. Their work and contributions create a trickle-down effect that improves morale, performance, and patient outcomes. Proactively identifying team members who can excel in leadership roles and giving them impactful opportunities for employee upskilling or reskilling can make a dramatic difference in your team’s day-to-day life. The trick is, don’t just do this once, and don’t use half measures. You should always be scouting internally for good talent and you should be using the best employee training opportunities available (not just what’s convenient).
- Score easy wins. Little things can make a big difference in a team member’s mental health. A few more days of PTO a year (or a more flexible PTO policy), more frequent breaks, even better on-site dining options–these are little changes that show you don’t just “talk the talk” about team morale, but you “walk the walk,” too.
By Katie Kay, Vice President, Academics – Healthcare @ Emeritus, and Danika Bowen, Vice President, Operations – Healthcare @ Emeritus