The Rise Of Burnout In Healthcare: A Look Into The Sources
We need to talk about healthcare worker burnout.
If the last year and a half or so have taught us one thing, it’s that our healthcare workers make the world go round. They have collectively sacrificed their own personal, physical, emotional, and mental wellbeing in order to help as many people as they possibly can throughout a raging pandemic. The first thing we’d like to do here is show some gratitude and say thank you to everyone who has been working tirelessly to keep us safe and healthy.
The Covid-19 pandemic unfortunately heightened what already was an industry demanding incredible responsibility and requiring 100% effort. One nurse likened the situation to “ethical warfare” because of the heavy decisions that she has had to make during her time in a Covid ward. And according to the American Academy of Family Physicians, “‘Numerous global studies involving nearly every medical and surgical specialty indicate that one in every three physicians is experiencing burnout at any given time.’ The 2015 Medscape Physician Lifestyle Survey reported an even higher burnout rate – 46 percent of physicians, up from 39.8 percent in the 2013 survey.”
We think it’s safe to say that the healthcare industry has a problem, which really means that we all have one. Addressing issues of burnout is vital to the health of our entire society; it simply cannot be overlooked.
Fortunately, burnout can be temporary. Knowing what it feels like (so it can be diagnosed), who is feeling it the most, and what, exactly, is causing it is an important first step in addressing the issue, keep reading to find out more.
What Are Symptoms of Burnout?
Burnout can present itself at every level of the workplace, including the individual (“I”), team-wide (“We”), and systemic (“It”). Here are symptoms that can be felt throughout all levels:
Are you feeling physically drained? Are you falling asleep on your breaks? Are you feeling new pains throughout your body (these are especially common in places where we hold tension like the back and neck)? If that’s the case, then you may be experiencing burnout.
Another indicator of burnout is emotional exhaustion. This may look like having a short fuse and lots of angry outbursts. Maybe you find yourself crying in the breakroom or on your way to/from work. On the flip side, emotional exhaustion can also look like a complete lack of emotion, or even a sense of dissociation.
Are you feeling isolated from those around you, at work and/or at home? Sometimes, when we feel burnout, we isolate ourselves from our support systems. Feeling stretched thin and burnt out can leave you feeling like no one understands what you’re going through. In these moments, it’s important to go the extra mile to reach out to someone so that you can access the help you might need. Check in with those around you to see if they’ve noticed any behavioral changes.
Sometimes, burnout shows up in the form of reduced productivity. You might feel like you’re working harder than ever but you just can’t seem to get as much work done as usual. This may also be related to a systemic issue, which we’ll get to in a moment.
Lack of Trust
Do you feel like you can’t trust your coworkers or your leadership? This might be a sign of team (“we”) burnout. When we don’t trust our team, it becomes more difficult to work together, which ultimately creates a toxic environment that results in burnout.
Lots of Conflict
Another team-wide burnout symptom is conflict. If you feel like your coworkers just aren’t getting along, there might be bigger issues at play that’s causing unanimous burnout.
Lack of Resources
Now, as far as systemic (“It”) issues go, a lack of resources from the company or organization you work for is a huge indicator of burnout. This comes down to a feeling of being unsupported and underappreciated. At the end of the day, when we feel like the system we work in prohibits us from success, it’s easy to feel those individual symptoms of burnout that make work unbearable.
High Turnover Rates
A huge indicator of system-wide burnout is a high turnover rate. If team members are coming in and out like there’s a revolving door in the staff entrance, there’s a good chance that the organization isn’t addressing burnout.
Who is Feeling It?
According to a study published by the Cureus Journal of Medical Science, “Burnout has reached rampant levels among United States (US) healthcare professionals, with over one-half of physicians and one-third of nurses experiencing symptoms. The burnout epidemic is detrimental to patient care and may exacerbate the impending physician shortage.”
Physician burnout can lead to a wide range of consequences—from lowering patient satisfaction to creating more mistakes, to the risk of drug and alcohol abuse, and even to deep-rooted mental health issues like depression. Physician burnout can be fatal to both the patients and to the physicians themselves, which is why addressing it as soon as possible can quite literally mean the difference between life and death.
It’s evident that doctors and nurses are feeling the effects of burnout, but it goes even further than that. It’s trickling down to hospital support staff, nursing facilities, mental health facilities, and every other corner of the healthcare industry, too. Working with patients in any context during a pandemic has become far more difficult, so if you’re in healthcare and you feel a little guilty about your change in attitude, it’s time to step back, take a deep breath, and give yourself some credit for all the hard work you’re putting in.
What’s Causing Healthcare Burnout?
Now, let’s get into the specifics causes of burnout in your healthcare position and see how they relate to the symptoms we mentioned earlier.
A lot of hospitals and other healthcare facilities are simply overwhelmed by patients right now. They don’t have the resources to fulfill the needs of staff and patients alike. This may simply be because of the pandemic and limits of the facility, but it may have to do with an unsupportive system.
So many healthcare staff are feeling overwhelmed because they’re being pushed beyond their limits. Earlier in the pandemic, there wasn’t enough PPE for healthcare workers to protect themselves properly. Frontline workers have been forced to work longer hours, especially amid staffing shortages.
A huge piece of the burnout puzzle for physicians comes from conditioning in med school. You’re taught to push, grind, and excel at the expense of your mental and physical health; it’s no wonder physicians as a group are feeling so overwhelmed. You’ve been taught that the patient comes first, but you can’t help your patients if you don’t help yourself.
Lacking Mental Health Resources
In addition to being overwhelmed by patients, having fewer resources than necessary, and working long hours, 6 in 10 healthcare workers say their mental health was affected by Covid-19 and many people have been frustrated by a lack of mental health support.
Another point of stress for healthcare workers is that the rules for the pandemic have changed so quickly as scientists figure out what the safest protocols are. Not only does this create a sense of uncertainty, but enforcing rules that change from day-to-day can create friction with patients.
Ultimately, if you work in healthcare at any level, what we hope you take away from this is that it’s important to sit down, take a few deep breaths, and unpack your experiences with work to determine what’s causing your burnout. From there, it’s easier to pinpoint how to fix it.
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