Healthcare Burnout: Symptoms and Potential Treatments

You’ve probably heard the term “burnout” before. In an Oct. 2020 study published by the U.S. National Library of Medicine, Stefan De Hert Burnout defines burnout as “a work-related stress syndrome resulting from chronic exposure to job stress.”

It’s no secret that careers in healthcare are both physically and emotionally demanding; whether it’s constant high stress situations or the long hours, it’s not easy day-in and day-out.  And to add more stress and exhaustion to healthcare workers’ plates, the COVID-19 pandemic continues to wreak havoc as it has for nearly two years. 

Burnout can affect anyone, in any profession, but it is proven to affect healthcare workers in an extreme way. In fact, one in three physicians is experiencing burnout at any given time. 

Even back before the pandemic, over half of U.S. physicians experienced symptoms of burnout, a rate that’s nearly double that of workers in other professions, a 2018 study found (after controlling for hours worked, age, sex, etc.). 

And burnout can be found everywhere.

According to Ontario’s Science Table, severe burnout in Canada was affecting 30-40% of healthcare workers in the spring of 2020. One year later in 2021, rates were >60% for physicians, nurses, etc.

In a study found in the journal Plos One, half (51.4%) of respondents from 33 countries reported emotional exhaustion burnout related to their work during the public health emergency. The study reported that the U.S. had the highest reported burnout of all 33 participating countries with a rate of 62.8%. 

A total of 29 medical specialties were ranked for incidence of burnout in the 2020 Medscape National Physician Burnout and Suicide Report. The top, middle and lowest incidence can be found below.

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While most studies find no gender effect in the incidence of burnout, the Medscape National Physician Report found that women physicians reported more common symptoms of burnout (48% female vs 37% male). 

What are the symptoms of burnout?

In numerous studies, burnout is described by three symptomatic categories: exhaustion, depersonalization and lack of efficacy.

1. Exhaustion

Generally healthcare professionals work long hours that can be difficult on their physical health (and asked to work more hours since the beginning of the pandemic), but healthcare can also be a lot to deal with emotionally. When you add traumatic experiences on top of a physically demanding job, it can feel like too much. 

One study found that emotional exhaustion, specifically, “may be the most critical element of burnout to address.” 

2. Cynicism and depersonalization

Healthcare professionals aren’t the only ones to feel like a cog in the machine, but it can feel disheartening when one open hospital bed is quickly inhabited by a new sick patient, especially if leadership doesn’t recognize the great work you’ve been doing.

3. Lack of efficacy and personal accomplishment

Like number two, this one is devastating when you don’t feel like you are making a real difference. Leadership may be able to push a better culture where praise is given often.

Everyone can feel the burnout cycle. Sometimes you just need a break and sometimes serious actions are needed to alleviate burnout symptoms. 

The burnout cycle consists of the following:

1. The honeymoon, or the job satisfaction phase.This is where you feel optimistic, creative and energetic.

2. The onset of stress begins. Lower productivity may occur at this stage, along with anxiety, irritability, headache or lack of caring for personal needs. 

3. Chronic stress sinks in. Persistent tiredness, social withdrawal, chronic fatigue and cynical attitude can all be parts of this stage.

4. Burnout occurs. Obsession with problems, social isolation and behavioral changes may accompany previous conditions.

5. Habitual burnout leads to deep unhappiness. Depression, chronic mental and physical fatigue and chronic sadness that goes without treatment can be very dangerous to the individual. 

*If you or someone you know exhibits any or all of these symptoms, please find mental health help. Though there is a strong stigma encouraging healthcare workers to refrain from seeking mental health care, it is important to know that burnout is normal. Remember that mental health should not be neglected. 

The consequences of burnout can include decreased job satisfaction, absenteeism, turnover in personnel, etc. but the consequence most talked about is that physician burnout is linked to suboptimal patient care, resulting in lower patient satisfaction. 

The thought of potential medical errors, malpractice lawsuits and added caregiver/hospital costs may be enough to jumpstart many organizations to provide resources for their healthcare workers.

6 simple ways to combat healthcare burnout 

1. Give healthcare workers opportunities to voice their frustrations.

Burnout is normal with the high stress situations healthcare workers are faced with every day. Acknowledgement and discussion can be the first step to a better work atmosphere. Practices that unify your staff and foster friendships such as peer-to-peer coaching sessions can help healthcare workers find solace in those around them. 

2. Provide a mental health resources page for healthcare workers.

Almost 40% of U.S. physicians have no workplace support to deal with grief and trauma, per a recent Medscape report

Every healthcare worker at your practice, hospital, etc. should have readily available mental health resources.  Online resources (e.g., each department’s website) could contain a list of outreach programs and contact information for anonymous psychological health support. 

3. Offer training to supervise with empathy.

Training your staff to be “present” in conversations with coworkers and trainees can really make a difference in making well-being a priority. You can stay away from common phrases like, “How are you?” and instead saying, “Tell me how you’re really doing through the pandemic?” 

It’s critical to provide a safe space through active listening and following-up with individuals. 

4. Implement a comprehensive action plan to promote wellness.

You may need to change the culture of your organization to really accomplish creating an action plan for your organization. 

        One example of how you can go about change:

The American Medical Association launched the “Joy in Medicine Recognition Program.” The program encourages leadership to improve practice, teamwork and peer support efficiency. Read more here to get ideas for your organization.

5. Establish a provider wellness committee. 

When you create a committee of people that span different departments and include physicians and advanced practice providers, you can get a better understanding of how your organization is really doing. Furthermore, those experiencing symptoms of burnout will have someone to talk to that they feel has their best interest at heart. 

6. Make tech changes that actually help your team.

The Agency of Healthcare Research and Quality (AHRQ), an official website of the Department of Health and Human Services, said, “the hope that electronic health records (EHRs) in the workplace would reduce stress has not been realized; in fact, implementation of an EHR can contribute to burnout.”

Though we do not currently have a fix for EHR annoyances, we do have a fix in helping your team without the headaches when it comes to Rivet’s software. Rivet offers patient good faith estimates, denials management and underpayments workflow tools. 

Click here for additional resources to avoid or treat healthcare burnout.

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