By Wendy Shurette, Risk Consultant for Inspirien and the Healthcare Workers’ Compensation Fund

For over 20 years, I regularly heard from co-workers, “I am so burnt out”, “I need a vacation”, or “TGIF, I’m exhausted”. Healthcare workers are no strangers to burnout. With the onslaught of covid and the extended length of the pandemic, we now have an epidemic of burnout. Although we’re beginning to learn more about the signs and symptoms of the condition, it’s important that we continue our exploration and find ways to overcome. Burnout is defined by the World Health Organization as ineffective management of workplace stress. It goes beyond the feelings of “I need a day off”, or “I need a vacation”; burnout is persistent exhaustion and fatigue that is not relieved by a break in work. It is imperative that we recognize symptoms, develop a mitigation plan to avoid consequences and provide ongoing support not only in a pandemic, but for any time there is a crisis or times of high stress. Organizational success and outcomes rely on our employees to deliver the best care possible and taking care of our employees ensures that they have the tools they need to provide that care. Our healthcare workers are more than essential, they are treasured and critical to the healthcare infrastructure.

Symptoms of Burnout

So, what does burnout look like and what should you look for? Burnout can present in many different ways. It may present as personality changes, irritability, aggression, detachment, changes in physical appearance, carelessness, cutting corners, work absences, etc. According to the Harvard Business Review, these employees are more likely to take sick days, visit the emergency department, less likely to care about their job performance and have lower confidence. Studies have shown that when polled, half of the responding physicians have reported feeling at least one symptom of burnout. It is also estimated that burnout may affect up to 70% of nurses, and 50% of Nurse Practitioners and Physician Assistants.

Developing a Mitigation Plan

An important goal for developing a mitigation plan for healthcare workers is to avoid having a reactive mindset; having processes in place that prevent burnout from developing is key. Burnout mitigation plans should include encouraging employees to communicate their feelings, get plenty of rest, and even seek therapy via employee assistance programs if needed. Further, encourage employees to take vacation days and respect their time away, adjust workloads when possible, instruct leaders to remain approachable and listen with the intent to understand. Leaders can also support employees by maintaining open lines of communication, expressing gratitude, and giving feedback on job performance, both constructive, as well as things that need to be improved.

The use of chaplains is also something to consider. Chaplains are a trusted, spiritual resource to help with various issues such as work problems, home-life issues and trauma response. Also, provide support option contacts in multiple places so they are readily available and can be accessed on the employee’s terms, without the fear of being exposed.

A supportive leadership culture is a key component to any mitigation plan. Make sure your facility’s leadership is equipped to recognize the signs and symptoms of burnout and has the proper tools for screening, monitoring and reporting any concerns.

Organizational Consequences of Burnout

Consequences of burnout extends beyond the individual employee. It can actually impact organizational performance if not addressed. The issue could play a role in reduced patient satisfaction scores, increases in healthcare acquired infections, diagnostic and medication errors, staff turnover rates, length of hospital stays, and potentially an increase in claims and suits. It is important to communicate to staff that their performance is part of a much bigger picture. Burnout not only harms the employee, it has the ability to impact outcomes.

Support for Burnout

How do you support employees that are suffering from burnout? To start, listen. A culture that welcomes employees to share what’s going on with them helps them to feel supported. Per the CDC, communicating with employees and coworkers about stressors in the workplace helps to vocalize frustrations and fosters brainstorming to work on solutions together. For example, team members can discuss how the pandemic is affecting them and what coping techniques are working and not working. Support also includes encouraging team members to connect with support resources; family, friends, chaplains or even a mental health professional. Provide reassurance that we are all in this pandemic together and remind them that they are doing their best with the information and resources available to them. Lastly, provide encouragement and highlight wins such as patients who were able to recover, good catches, recognition for coverage of extra shifts, etc.

Everyone at Inspirien extends our deepest gratitude and applauds the continued resilience and true grit of healthcare workers. Your hard work, dedication, sacrifice, and skills do not go unnoticed. If you need to reach out, there are many who will listen and resources that are always available. One resource is a recording of our recent education webinar, Workplace Stress and Burnout – Recognition and Preventionavailable free to any healthcare professionals through the end of the year. Click HERE to view the recording. CE Credit is not available for viewing the recording of the webinar.

Remember, together we will overcome this pandemic.