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Leaders’ Guide to Combatting Health Care Burnout

Leaders’ Guide to Combatting Health Care Burnout

There’s an epidemic hitting health care workers. It’s not a new virus or bacteria—it’s health care burnout. And it’s serious enough that United States Surgeon General Vivek Murthy recently declared it a crisis.

More than half of doctors surveyed said they’re feeling burned out, an 11% jump in just one year. Sixty-six percent of nurses are considering resigning due to burnout. And 53% of health care workers have reported at least one symptom of a mental health condition such as depression or anxiety. Left untreated, health care burnout can have severe impacts on both your employees and your organization.

Understanding health care burnout

The World Health Organization (WHO) defines burnout as a work-related stress syndrome resulting from chronic exposure to job stress. It’s characterized by physical and emotional exhaustion, feelings of disconnection, dread, negativity, or cynicism, as well as feeling unable to make a desired impact at work.

Long hours, incredibly stressful working conditions, and the high death toll during the pandemic significantly increased health care worker burnout. But medical burnout was on the rise before 2020.

For example, in 2019 the National Academy of Medicine found high rates of nurse burnout (up to 54% of nurses). That’s because they, along with other health workers, are regularly in situations that create severe moral distress, emotional exhaustion, and mental health issues. Some of the more challenging situations include:

  • Ethical dilemmas such as rationing critical care resources like ventilators
  • Emotional trauma from working in high-stress settings and life-and-death situations
  • Workplace violence and harassment, including threats, bullying, verbal abuse, or other actions from patients and co-workers
  • Irregular and long work hours that disrupt sleep patterns and accelerate mental exhaustion
  • Compassion fatigue (consistently being exposed to patients’ suffering and witnessing others’ trauma)
  • Anxiety and stress about making mistakes that could harm patients
  • Administrative burdens that may feel tedious and take time away from patients and families
  • Lack of organizational support, workplace learning, and access to mental health care
  • Work overload from caring for too many patients with limited staff and resources

The impacts of health care burnout

Burnout in health care has serious implications for individuals and entire organizations. It’s often associated with mental health issues like insomnia, depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), substance use disorders, and suicide.

Unfortunately, suicide rates for health care workers far exceed those of the general population. Physician suicide rates, for example, are alarmingly high—rates among male doctors are up to 40% higher and female doctors are as much as 130% higher than non-medical professionals. Nurse suicide rates are also high—double that of the general population and 70% higher than female physicians.

In addition to the harmful consequences for individual workers and the obvious human toll, health care burnout can also have a negative impact throughout organizations. Signs of this include:

  • Delayed patient or client care
  • Poor quality of work and increased medical errors
  • Patient safety issues
  • Poor patient satisfaction
  • Lack of on-the-job engagement
  • Low employee retention rate and early retirement

Of the 25% of U.S. clinicians considering switching careers, 89% cited burnout as the reason. This will only exacerbate the existing health care worker shortage.

Overcoming barriers to support your workforce

Stigma around mental health keeps many health care professionals from seeking treatment. They may view the need for support as a sign of weakness or fear that asking for help will provoke professional consequences. For example, doctors often forgo getting help because medical licensing boards and health care systems ask questions about mental health issues that they fear could limit their careers.

Privacy is another barrier. Lacking access to mental health care outside of their own hospitals or networks can also keep people from getting the care they need.

But there are steps you can take to overcome these barriers and combat health care burnout.

#1 Check in regularly

Seven in 10 health care workers say they don’t feel valued for the work they do, so it’s important to meet regularly with employees to hear their concerns. Be responsive to their needs and include them when designing better processes. When employees feel valued and engaged, they’re not only more productive, they’re also half as likely to leave.

#2 Offer comprehensive mental health benefits

To guard against health care burnout, it’s essential to provide fast and easy access to mental health providers who deliver evidence-based, culturally responsive, and specialized care. The best programs offer in-person and virtual visits to accommodate busy schedules, as well as a robust network of providers from diverse backgrounds and identities.

#3 Design work so it doesn’t add unnecessary stress or burden

Consider investments in technology and personnel to offload administrative burdens such as entering patient data into EHRs, tracking forms, and sending faxes. This will give health care workers more meaningful time with patients and reduce work hours. Championing a culture of inclusion, equity, and respect boosts employee morale, and can ease the burden many health care professionals feel. And expanding flexibility and autonomy gives employees a sense of control—even in times of high patient volume and undue stress.

#4 Proactively combat stigma so your employees feel safe seeking help

A psychologically safe environment and work culture that normalizes mental health care helps reduce stigma and leads to more people getting care. You can achieve this by talking openly about mental health, health care burnout, and the struggles many clinicians face. Let them know care is easily available and strongly encouraged. It can also be helpful to encourage leaders to discuss their own mental health and emphasize the importance of self-care practices.

#5 Offer assessments, trainings, and workshops to create a culture of mental wellness

Assessments can help you determine how your workforce is doing, and ongoing training can educate employees about mental health and encourage them to seek help. It’s important to include on-demand learning and workshops, as well as education on ways to relieve stress, such as mindfulness and breathing techniques.

From crisis to care

Health care workers are healers. They spend their days and nights caring for others—yet often don’t get the care they need themselves. With the right resources and support, you can alleviate burnout in health care, bolster employee well-being, and attract and retain the best talent.

Give medical professionals the mental health support they need.

Learn more about building a culture of support in health care.

Read our guide
About the reviewer
Lauren Cunnningham

Dr. Cunningham has over a decade of clinical and administrative behavioral health experience. She received a doctoral degree in counseling psychology from Ball State University and has authored publications on crisis prevention in schools and sexism toward women in the military. Previously, she held several mental health-focused roles in the United States Air Force, receiving many honors including the Air Force Commendation Medal for Meritorious Service and the Air Force Achievement Medal. She also served as CEO of Blackbird Psychological Services, providing and supervising psychological evaluations for the Department of Defense and Veterans.

Clinically reviewed by
Lauren Cunnningham
By The Lyra Team
7 of December 2023 - 5 min read
Mental health at work
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