BY LOGAN CHURCH-OWENS
The American mental health crisis affects everybody. The COVID-19 pandemic brought a simmering systemic issue to a boiling point. Rising levels of depression and anxiety impact large portions of our population within every category of age, race, and class—but one group hit particularly hard by this trend is healthcare workers. In fact, mental health burnout among healthcare professionals continues to rise so dramatically that some have called it a “shadow pandemic.” What exactly is going on with healthcare workers’ mental health and what can we do? Read on to learn more!
The Background of Healthcare Worker Burnout
No matter how you look at them: the numbers tell a troubling story. In 2021, Washington Post/Kaiser Family Foundation surveyed 1,327 frontline healthcare workers in the United States who had worked or continue to work during the pandemic. Parts of their survey found positive results: three-fourths (76%) of frontline health care workers say they feel “hopeful” when going to work these days and the majority also said they feel “optimistic” (67%) and motivated (63%). Large numbers feel their jobs are meaningful, especially in light of their highly essential status during the last two years.
But, on the other hand, the same survey revealed an overwhelming 55% of frontline healthcare workers reported burnout (mental and physical exhaustion from chronic workplace stress) and a majority of all health care workers (62%) reported some mental health repercussions. Nor is this burnout demonstrating itself solely as psychological distress. One staggering study by the Morning Consult, an intelligence company, determined nearly 1 in 5 healthcare workers have quit their jobs during the COVID-19 pandemic. These mass quittings are partially connected to the Great Resignation, a labor phenomenon affecting the entire American workforce. But, healthcare worker resignation differs in its uniquely high levels of employee frustration. The Washington Post survey also found that, in addition to burnout symptoms, 26% of health care workers in hospitals reported persistent anger and 29% have considered leaving the medical field. The mass exodus of exhausted and demoralized doctors, nurses and other frontline workers impacting our health system directly flows from the mental health burnout crisis.
This is clearly an issue. COVID-19 demonstrated the utterly essential nature of healthcare workers. American front-line workers proved, and continue to prove, their bravery and resiliency in the face of an unprecedented deadly respiratory disease. But, clearly these same workers are feeling tired, burnt out, and their mental health is suffering. In order to determine how we can solve this problem and support these indispensable women and men—we need to identify the root causes of the healthcare burnout crisis.
Why Is This Happening?
Similar to the mental health crisis affecting the general population, the mental health crisis affecting healthcare workers has been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, but also precedes it. Support for healthcare workers, including compensation, salaries, and benefits, has been lagging for the past decade. In addition to this lack of institutional support for healthcare workers, Dr. Dharam Kaushik, program director of the Department of Urology and Mays Cancer Center at UT Health San Antonio, also points to systemic issues in medical training that deepen burnout: “It is ingrained early on in medicine to ‘keep doing what you are told and never complain.’ If you complain, you are seen as not resilient.” Medical training, in some places, often valorizes a ‘tough it out” mentality, which downplays acknowledging struggle and articulating difficulty—impulses that can quickly worsen mental health in negative conditions.
Thus, when such negative conditions arrived in the unprecedented medical disaster of early 2020, these preexisting issues—insufficient material benefits and a “tough it out” workplace culture—were elevated to the level of crisis. Dr. Kaushik points out the added layers of stress that the pandemic forced upon healthcare workers:
“Multiple survey data now show that healthcare workers responsible for providing direct care for COVID-19 patients are more likely to have depression, anxiety, and mental distress. These mental health issues may be related to psychological distress from witnessing COVID-19-related deaths, extra-long work hours, and work-life imbalance.”
Dr. Kaushik goes on to say that the issue expands beyond the inherent stress of just treating patients sick with COVID-19. Health care workers have been working nonstop, and they’ve been doing without “full institutional appreciation of their sacrifices as many have suffered financial distress including salary cuts and furloughs.”
Thus—while the pandemic brought healthcare worker burnout to critical levels with the sheer volume of sick patients and mortalities—lackluster responses from hospitals and the general culture of the healthcare system enabled the conditions that brought this crisis to a breaking point.
What Can We Do?
So, when it comes to relieving the crisis of burnout among healthcare professionals, the burden falls squarely on healthcare leaders and administrators. Three experts in institutional leadership published an essay in the Harvard Business Review, responding to the healthcare mental crisis. In it, they argued that leaders of healthcare providers can best address burnout “by implementing a variety of approaches to restore their workers’ physical and emotional reserves, sense of self, and trust in the organization that employs them.”
Four key suggestions they make for healthcare leaders and administrators are:
- “Lead with kindness” by fostering a work environment that is inclusive, transparent, open to input, consistently develops employees, and expresses gratitude.
- “Be a reliable advocate” by offering robust support for employees, including institutional commitments to protecting their physical safety and economic security.
- “Allow time for what matters” by increasing the average time a clinician is expected to spend with a patient. This prevents too-rushed engagement and important information not being shared, as well as strengthens ties between doctors and those they treat.
- “Invest in extended healthcare teams” by spreading out administrative work over larger, more specialized employee networks. This way, clinicians don’t have to spend as much time and effort on administrative tasks they often find physically and emotionally depleting—thereby reducing burnout.
These authors offer a substantial number of other suggestions, and there are no shortage of other thought-leadership pieces devoted to brainstorming how we can solve the burnout crisis.
Dr. Kaushik, for his part, has his own laundry list of proposals, but ultimately argues that the most crucial element of resolving this crisis is for leadership, at every level, to take responsibility. The solutions to healthcare worker burnout might look different in every office and hospital—but it’s clear that intentional, confident leaders dedicated to changing the industry for the better are non-negotiable if we want to create a more sustainable and resilient healthcare system.
ACU Online recognizes this need for strong, well-equipped healthcare administrators. That’s why we’re training the next generation of leaders through our fully online Bachelor of Science in Healthcare Administration, Certificate in Healthcare Administration, and Master of Healthcare Administration programs. Are you a focused, driven trailblazer with the grit and determination to make a difference in the healthcare industry and solve the mental health crisis? Visit our website or call 855-219-7300 to learn how you can become a healthcare changemaker.