The COVID pandemic has taken a toll on healthcare workers both directly and indirectly. An increase in workloads, coupled with shortages of necessary items such as PPE and medical supplies, has created workplace environments that have been creating burnout at unprecedented rates.
The nursing shortage that already existed has gotten worse, as many nurses left the profession to seek employment elsewhere due to burnout. This creates a compounded problem for the nurses still working, as they may be expected to pick up even more shifts.
Healthcare workers like nurses and doctors can take steps to reduce burnout, like eating well, getting enough exercise and engaging in self-care like taking a moment to use a soothing hand mask while taking a nap.
But will doctors and nurses still be experiencing burnout in 2022? Facing a winter surge in COVID cases, some hospitals have already had to cancel elective surgeries and move or divert patients to other facilities due to shortages of available beds, so things are already heating up.
Some healthcare organizations have implemented programs to help combat burnout in their staff after seeing the effects of the COVID pandemic on frontline staff. Let’s look more closely at what is being done.
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What Is Burnout in Healthcare Workers?
According to research, burnout is considered a result of poorly managed workplace stress and is characterized by three factors:
- Feeling physically and emotionally exhausted or depleted
- Higher levels of negative thoughts and feelings about the job create a mental distancing from the job
- A reduction in constructively carrying out the requirements of the job
In an unhealthy workplace, the burden of coping with workplace stress falls to the workers themselves. There are steps that organizations can take to create a healthier environment, which can reduce burnout.
Healthcare workers suffering from burnout may have symptoms such as:
- Isolating at home as a result of feeling overwhelmed
- Sleep disturbances
- Fantasies of escape, such as moving away or running away alone
- An increase in the use of alcohol or drugs for respite
- Ongoing irritability or outbursts
- Frequent or recurring physical infections, sickness or pain
- Calling out sick at the last minute
- Feelings of anxiety and distress when preparing to go to work
These symptoms can be overwhelming. While they are occurring, it may be hard to pinpoint the source. Understanding what creates burnout can help healthcare workers to identify what is going on and get help more quickly.
Factors That Create Burnout in Healthcare Workers
Becoming a nurse, a doctor or another healthcare worker is not for everyone. People who work in health care are a special breed, and there are different reasons why people choose to work in medicine.
One of the most frequently cited reasons for choosing a career in health care is the sense of a personal calling. Besides, there are some other factors, such as the influence of family members or the example of having other healthcare workers in the family. The status of health professionals as important members of the community is also involved, as is access to training and economic factors.
People who choose healthcare tend to be caring and empathetic as well as driven and highly responsible. These are important traits, but they can also contribute to burnout when conditions become challenging. Some factors that increase the likelihood of burnout in healthcare providers can be:
- Frequent changes in expectations or work processes
- Being underpaid
- Higher caseloads with no reduction insight
- An ongoing increase in patient acuity
- Increased demands on time, such as documenting and filling out forms in addition to regular charting
- Technology and equipment that is not operating as intended or expected
- High personal expectations and selflessness
Will Burnout Continue to Affect Nurses and Doctors?
Organizations can create programs and improve the workplace culture in order to reduce burnout. Of course, they don’t have control over things like pandemics, natural disasters like weather-related cataclysms or earthquakes, but they can try to mitigate some of the effects.
Coping with a highly stressful work environment that then results in burnout should not fall solely on the shoulders of the workers on the frontline. Organizations can make changes to help reduce burnout such as:
- Creating a process for regular check-ins with workers
- Promptly following up on concerns expressed by healthcare workers
- Creating resources for workers, such as enjoyable places for workers to relax or even nap on their breaks
- Providing and encouraging mental health support like EAP
- Acknowledging employees’ hard work in meaningful ways on a regular basis
- Maintaining the workplace, equipment and technology to streamline workflow
If you work in a healthcare setting that is not actively working to combat burnout, then communicating your needs to the administration may be a place to start. Talking with coworkers and presenting the organization with concrete ideas of what would improve conditions can help guide the organization and create a sense of empowerment and control for healthcare workers.
Self-Care to Help Prevent Burnout
As a healthcare worker, you are focused on doing your best for your patients and making sure they have the best healthcare experience you can offer. You need to take care of yourself, as well, since the ongoing effects of COVID will be with us for a long time.
There are many steps you can take in your personal life to avoid burnout. Some things to try are taking steps like:
- Set healthy boundaries. It is very important to make a commitment to caring for yourself. Self-care is different for everyone. It may be going for a run, making sure you have adequate time off or pampering yourself with a firming eye cream.
- Make time for yourself. You may need time alone or with your close friends. Check-in with yourself regularly and ask “What do I need right now?” While at work, you may need to check in with yourself to make sure you are eating when you are hungry and taking care of your needs.
- Get adequate rest and eat a good diet. Try to make small changes wherever you can to meet those needs.
- Consider getting help with your mental health. There is no shame in reaching out to a mental health professional. Talking with a qualified therapist or counselor can help you more than you may realize.
- Find other outlets for your creativity and joy. Music, dancing, art and time in nature can feed your spirit in ways that work may not be able to.
Burnout will probably always be part of being a healthcare worker. If you are lucky enough to work for an organization that is making strides to address the issue, then you should access the resources offered to you.
The COVID epidemic has brought healthcare worker burnout out of the shadows and into the light. There is no shame in admitting that you are affected by it.