A 2019 report from the National Academy of Medicine (NAM) found that as many as half of the nation’s doctors and nurses experience substantial symptoms of healthcare burnout. In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, it can reasonably be assumed that this number has grown exponentially.
Join us as we explore what causes this occupational phenomenon, its signs and symptoms and what can be done to treat this potentially serious condition.
What Is Healthcare Burnout?
The World Health Organization’s (WHO) 11th Revision of the International Classification of Diseases (ICD-11) defines “burnout” as:
“A syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed. It is characterized by three dimensions:
- Feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion;
- Increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one’s job; and
- Reduced professional efficacy.
Burnout refers specifically to phenomena in the occupational context and should not be applied to describe experiences in other areas of life.”
What Causes Healthcare Burnout?
While there are many factors that contribute to healthcare burnout, the following five causes have been identified as the top contributors by healthcare professionals:
- Long Hours: As the Baby Boomer generation ages and the incidents of chronic disease increase, there is more demand for healthcare professionals. However, the United States is currently facing a healthcare worker shortage. As a result, many healthcare professionals work extended hours in understaffed facilities.
- Sleep Deprivation: A lack of sleep negatively impacts mood, attention span and memory. Data from the National Health Interview Survey (NHIS) found that 45% of healthcare workers get an inadequate amount of sleep (less than seven hours per night). Furthermore, night shifts and rotating shifts interfere with the body’s natural circadian rhythm.
- Policies & Procedures: Healthcare organizations are dependent upon policies and procedures to create a uniform system of care. However, excessive “rules” eliminate the need for autonomous thought and observation. Furthermore, when patient satisfaction scores are used as the primary barometer of success, clinicians can’t help but feel defeated.
- EHRs & New Technology: Electronic health records (EHR) were implemented to make administrative tasks more efficient. However, their poorly designed user interfaces often cause confusion and frustration. Likewise, when newer technologies are rolled out without training or integration, chaos ensues.
- Lack of Support: Many healthcare organizations lack a good culture of teamwork and collaboration. Conflict, poor communication, a lack of cooperation and peer-to-peer bullying are viewed as “hazards of the job.” This makes for an unpleasant work environment that compromises patient outcomes.
What Are the Signs and Symptoms?
According to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, there are five common symptoms associated with healthcare burnout:
- Physical Fatigue: It is not uncommon to feel tired after a long shift. However, you should wake up feeling refreshed and energized after a good night’s sleep. Constant physical fatigue can be one of the first signs of healthcare burnout.
- Feeling Underappreciated: Do you feel undervalued at work? Research from The University of Aberdeen has found that feeling unappreciated may cause healthcare workers more stress than the demands of the work itself.
- Feeling Indifferent: No longer feeling fulfilled with your work and/or no longer sensing a connection to your patients is another sign of healthcare burnout. Left unchecked, it can lead to profound consequences for patients and providers.
- Resistance to Change: The healthcare industry is constantly changing. New policies, procedures, best practices and information emerge daily. An inability to adapt to these changes could be a symptom of more serious issues.
- Getting Sick: Healthcare professionals are human and are bound to get sick too. However, anxiety, depression, chronic pain, gastrointestinal problems, etc. can all be signs that your body is under a tremendous amount of stress.
What Are the Consequences?
If left untreated, healthcare burnout can be associated with the following physical and psychosomatic issues:
- Increased likelihood for heart disease;
- Increased likelihood for high blood pressure;
- Increased likelihood for type 2 diabetes;
- Increased likelihood for respiratory issues;
- Increased likelihood for depression;
- Increased likelihood for anxiety; and
- Increased likelihood for mental health needs like medication or hospitalization.
5 Ways to Treat Healthcare Burnout
1. Acknowledge It
You can’t fix what you don’t acknowledge is broken. That’s why the first step in treating healthcare burnout is acknowledging you might have it.
- Do I find joy and satisfaction in my work?
- Do I have more “good” days than “bad” days?
- Do I feel in control of my life?
If you find yourself answering “no” to these types of questions, there’s a strong possibility that what you’re feeling is more than “normal” work-related stress.
As a healthcare professional, it can be extremely difficult to admit that you cannot help everyone all the time. Your well will eventually run dry. So be honest with yourself. Ultimately, acknowledgement and acceptance will help you identify and abide by stronger boundaries, making you a happier clinician for the long term.
2. Treat Your Body Right
Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh once said, “When it comes to health and well-being, regular exercise is about as close to a magic potion as you can get.”
As a healthcare professional, you regularly extol the virtues of an active lifestyle. But do you take your own medicine?
Research has shown that 30 minutes of exercise per day yields tremendous benefits. For instance, it not only promotes heart health and weight loss, it also increases energy and productivity.
Beyond the physical benefits, regular exercise increases the amount of norepinephrine in your body, the chemical that moderates your response to stress. While exercise alone is not enough to combat the effects of healthcare burnout, it is a good place to start.
“When it comes to health and well-being, regular exercise is about as close to a magic potion as you can get.”
~ Thich Nhat Hanh ~
3. Set Boundaries
It is not uncommon for healthcare professionals to struggle with setting boundaries. After all, healthcare is a helping profession. However, if you want to succeed in the war against burnout, you’re going to need to draw a line in the sand.
For some healthcare professionals, this might mean saying “no” to extra shifts and responsibilities. For others, it could mean refusing to accept anything less than professional behavior from colleagues and managers.
Take the time to think about what causes you the most angst at work. Decide now how you will respond if/when that “dreaded” situation arises. While setting boundaries will feel uncomfortable at first, you will find that it frees you to be a more compassionate clinician.
Watch this short video from Brené Brown on how strong boundaries lead to more compassion.
4. Talk to a Professional
You’re a medical professional with an advanced understanding of the human body. Despite all your knowledge and skills, you would never dream of performing surgery on yourself. Instead, you would seek out a highly skilled surgeon, an expert in their field.
The same principle holds true for your mental health. There’s no reason to go it alone. Mental health professionals are readily available to met with you at a time (day or night) and in a way (in-person or virtually) that’s convenient for you.
So, when should you seek out the services of a mental health professional? The Mayo Clinic offers the following 10 signs and symptoms:
- Marked changes in personality, eating or sleeping patterns;
- An inability to cope with problems or daily activities;
- Feeling disconnected or withdrawn from normal activities;
- Unusual or “magical” thinking;
- Excessive anxiety;
- Prolonged sadness, depression or apathy;
- Thoughts or statements about suicide or harming others;
- Substance misuse;
- Extreme mood swings; and
- Excess anger, hostility or violent behavior.
5. Consider a Change
While it shouldn’t be the first line of defense, clinicians grappling with healthcare burnout should consider a change of scenery. Whether its working different shifts or finding a new job altogether, a change in routine can be extremely beneficial.
Clinicians that are ready to make a change in employment have a wealth of resources at their disposal to ensure that the transition is a successful one. For instance, Premier Physician Services has nationwide placement opportunities for advanced practice clinicians. Their placement experts take the time to get to know what’s important to you. They then leverage this knowledge to find positions that are good match professionally and personally. Click here to have Premier Physician Services contact you.
It’s undeniable that healthcare burnout takes a toll on clinicians, their family members and patients. However, when it is acknowledged and treated properly, there is hope for recovery and a long, happy career.
Explore additional resources from Premier Physician Services LLC:
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