A Guide to Addressing Health Care Worker Burnout

A Guide to Addressing Health Care Worker Burnout

Charlie Bedell

Improving healthcare workers’ wellness is a business imperative. Recently, the Surgeon General’s Office put out an alert regarding health care worker burnout and resignation. To combat this, it is important for hospitals and health care management to take action to help prevent this potential crisis. It starts by paying attention to the signs of burnout.

You’ve probably heard of healthcare burnout before. The U.S. Office of the Surgeon General defines burnout as an occupational syndrome characterized by a high degree of emotional exhaustion and low sense of personal accomplishment at work. It can lead to mental health challenges, including anxiety and depression, that impact people’s wellbeing both at work and at home.

Though addressing burnout may involve individual support, it’s not an individual mental health diagnosis. Burnout is a distinct workplace phenomenon that calls for organizational-level support and solutions.

And it’s on the rise. In 2019, a Gallup study found that almost a third of full-time U.S. employees experienced symptoms of burnout. By 2021, that number rose to nearly half.

While burnout can affect anyone in any profession, it’s proven to affect health care workers on a larger scale. In December 2021, a poll found that 85% of health care workers feel exhaustion and burnout, and 49% said they’ve thought of leaving the health care industry as a result.

As health care organizations focus on building sustainable care models based on lessons learned from the pandemic, they must also address burnout and prioritize health care workers’ wellness. The well-being of clinicians is tied to their overall fulfillment and engagement at work. It impacts the quality of care they deliver to patients – and in turn, influences patient experience and organizations’ overall business goals.

This guide will help further define burnout and its symptoms, provide best practices for mitigating burnout, and how to improve health care providers’ wellness in your organization.

What is burnout?

In numerous studies, burnout is described in three categories of symptoms: exhaustion, cynicism and depersonalization, and lack of personal accomplishment.

1. Exhaustion

Health care professionals work long hours and take on challenges that are oftentimes physically, mentally, and emotionally exhausting. In many cases, they’ve been asked to work even more hours since the beginning of the pandemic while under the stress of potential infection. When you add these 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 organizations need to address.

2. Cynicism and depersonalization

Burnout can make employees feel like just another cog in the machine – when their work isn’t recognized or appreciated, it’s easy to feel disheartened and cynical. For doctors and nurses in particular, a hospital bed or exam room often gets quickly filled by another sick patient without time to emotionally or mentally process these moments.

The breaking point usually manifests as numbness or depression. When an employee doesn’t see a light at the end of the tunnel, it’s hard for them to be optimistic or find satisfaction in the work they’re doing. Burnout causes an increased sense of failure and negativity which can, in turn, damage overall well-being.

Mental health professionals can be extremely helpful for those experiencing these emotional symptoms of burnout. Increased mental health support from leadership can also go a long way to helping health care workers feel like the work they do makes a difference.

3. Lack of efficacy and personal accomplishment

It can be devastating to feel like your work is not making a real difference, especially when it takes time away from being with family and friends. As a result, burnout intensifies, leaving employees feeling like their work is not respected or fairly compensated. Leadership may be able to shape an organizational culture where praise is given often, but it’s also important for organizations to consider increasing employees’ pay, time off, and access to benefits.

Burnout is cyclical

Researchers have defined a burnout cycle that kicks off when our body’s natural stress response gets activated. The cycle looks like this:

burnout cycle chart

The consequences of burnout can include decreased job satisfaction, absenteeism, and high turnover - all issues the health care industry increasingly faces. But one of the most important consequences is how health care worker burnout is linked to lower quality patient care, resulting in lower patient satisfaction.

Potential medical errors, malpractice lawsuits, and added health care organization costs may be enough to jumpstart many organizations to provide employees resources to mitigate burnout.

8 best practices for addressing health care worker burnout

These best practices, including initiatives that leading health systems have found successful, can help to foster a healthy work environment for health care employees.

It’s important to highlight that there is no one-size-fits-all approach to alleviating burnout. What works for some organizations, or even individual employees or teams, may not work for others. Use this guide to evaluate your existing programs and implement new initiatives to make provider well-being a long-term priority.

1. Be proactive: Ask questions and listen to your clinicians

This is the best place to start. Before you notice signs of burnout among your team, check-in and listen to their experiences and requests.

Don’t assume that you understand the problem for your specific team or the solutions that would work best for them. Offer open, regular communication with your clinical teams about how they’re doing and what they need.

Start with these 3 conversation starters to ask your teams:

  • What are you experiencing? How are you doing?
  • What types of support or resources could make your day-to-day better?
  • Are there specific programs or tools that are currently helping, or things that are adding to the burden on you and your colleagues?

You can also consider creating employee-led committees focused on wellness initiatives. Invite clinicians to help you assess your current programs, share feedback, and recommend and evaluate new initiatives. Ultimately, this lets your employees have a voice in initiatives and processes that mitigate burnout and improving clinical wellness.

Doctors, nurses and other health care workers are extremely resilient and have a tendency not to ask for help. Instead of waiting for them to come to you with issues, make sure you’re proactive about taking care of their wellbeing.

2. Set up moments for genuine connection

Encourage your team to connect virtually or in-person by holding spaces for simple socializing or for talking through challenging moments or patients. Sharing common experiences with peers can help alleviate feelings of isolation. And building connections and friendships between your team members can help employees feel like they have a supportive community at work. This helps beat burnout and attrition.

“When there is a trauma – and that can be any kind of trauma or death of an employee or death of a patient – we can bring food, offer counseling, or share among the entire workforce to continue support and offer help,” explains Dr. Jason Mitchell, Chief Medical and Clinical Transformation Officer at Presbyterian Healthcare Services in New Mexico. “We’ve found that when you share that experience with the people around you, and you’re not isolated, it’s easier to move through it.”

3. Acknowledge the unique trauma brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic

Many health care workers have been surrounded by loss, fear, and isolation for years due to the COVID-19 pandemic. They have endured relentlessly high patient volumes and a sense of helplessness caused by uncertainty about the virus. Many were the sole person in the room with patients as they received bad news, recovered from a difficult procedure, or even died.

All these experiences contribute to a unique level of trauma that clinical teams have experienced and are now carrying with them. Acknowledge this trauma appropriately in your organization to make sure clinicians know you recognize the unique, complex work they have done and continue to do.

A significant part of preventing burnout is helping your team know they don’t have to carry their trauma or work stress alone.

4. Implement digital tools to automate workflows and alleviate administrative burden

Health care workers consistently state they are burdened by paperwork and administrative tasks. In the Medical Economics 2020 Physician Burnout and Wellness Survey, nearly 1,000 providers cited “too much paperwork” as the top factor contributing to their feelings of burnout.

To help, seek to implement digital tools that help to automate workflows including intake and charting. These tools can put clinicians at the center, allowing them to focus on spending quality time with their patients instead of focused on a screen.

In fact, digital tools can improve overall care delivery, reduce 90% of administrative workflows, reduce patient wait times, and drive patient loyalty.

5. Develop a resource center with mental health resources for your clinicians

Your team members can always do a quick online search for information on burnout. But having a dedicated space for these kinds of resources can help cut the guesswork out of what information is valid and useful.

Consider building an internal site, folder, or document accessible to everyone in the organization with information on burnout, mental health, and work/life balance. Create helpful resources on ways to relax your mind and self care ideas. Leave physical resources in a staff break room or lounge. This way, resources are easy to access and use. You can also send a reminder and update your resource center every quarter to keep it top-of-mind for your clinicians.

6. Consider development workshops or courses that may be helpful for your team

Sometimes breaking out of the usual routine and learning in a different environment can be invigorating for your employees. Identify opportunities for trainings or workshops that will help your team continue their professional development outside of the day-to-day – and help mitigate potential burnout. A recent survey found that employees who got professional development from their employer were 15% more engaged and had 34% higher retention rates.

Ask your clinicians what types of training they’re interested in. This will ensure the most buy-in by the team – and can lead to real changes once back at work. You can also bring in external experts, make the trainings optional, and offer a few sessions at different times to allow for the best participation.

Two types of workshops or courses that would be a good starting place include:

  • Communications: Most clinicians aren’t taught communication skills during their medical training. Providing communications trainings helps them gain skills and feel more comfortable communicating with their peers, leadership, and even with their patients and families.
  • Leadership Development: This type of training can encourage clinicians to engage more openly with leadership and coworkers, especially in difficult or stressful situation. As a result, your team will feel like they have a more active role in solving paint points in delivering care. They may also feel more empowered to share clinicians’ perspectives on tools or workflows.

7. Encourage clinical team leaders to set up regular well-being check-ins

Your team leaders should be meeting with their team members regularly to connect and discuss tasks or work challenges. In addition to this, encourage them to set up regular wellbeing meetings focused on preventing burnout. These can be brief – 30 minutes at least – and dedicated to employees sharing anything that is impacting their well-being or leading to burnout.

Make sure to provide your team leaders with resources and help prepare them with a set of talking points to help guide these wellbeing conversations with team members. You can even hold optional training sessions or facilitate peer group conversations for leaders. These sessions can be opportunities to talk through encouraging moments with their clinicians, difficulties they’re running into during wellbeing meetings, or ways they can mitigate burnout amongst their teams.

8. Foster a culture that supports and engages your entire workforce

The culture of your organization starts with leadership. Happy, engaged clinicians have the energy and excitement to meet patient needs, support their team, and do excellent work. A positive culture can do a lot to help prevent burnout. Creating a positive and engaging work culture leads to a sense of community. It can create a team spirit that embraces the mantra, ‘we’re in this together.’ This helps teams to bond and strive together and will help reduce the feelings of burnout.

For a positive culture, it’s important for leadership to foster an environment that encourages:

  • Open, honest communication
  • Constant encouragement
  • A focus on meaningful work

While developing a supportive culture can take time, organizations that commit to it have less attrition and less burnout. See a recent study from Boston’s largest hospital.

TimeTap can help your organization succeed – and protect clinicians’ wellbeing

Health care organizations use TimeTap to simplify the work their clinical and administrative teams do by offering all the tools they need in one platform. With TimeTap, you can:

  • Simplify patient appointment booking: Keep your staff off the phone with a significant reduction in call volume. TimeTap makes it easy for patients to schedule their appointment at any time and on any device. Patients can even remove, reschedule, and edit their appointment independently.
  • Avoid overbooking and double bookings: Protect your medical staff’s time and energy by having everyone’s schedules visible in one calendar. This means no switching between schedules, no confusion about availability, and few scheduling accidents.
  • Access patient information all in one place: With TimeTap’s built-in client management system, you can store patient information directly in the software. This information can be collected from the appointment related forms, as well as updated. Apply tags and categorize patient info for easy sorting and reporting. Our software offers an all-in-one patient database with patients’ contact information, appointment history, and care notes. Additionally, with our API, you can export patient information to third party software.
  • Automate pre-appointment and follow-up text and emails: Set up automated text and emails to be sent to patients automatically with information they need before or after an appointment. With this feature, you can choose specific times, such as annually, to send check up reminders or other follow up related text and emails.
  • Protect your patient’s private information: TimeTap is HIPPA compliant and the most secure, enterprise-ready scheduling software available. With customizable privacy settings, you can manage your staff’s access to patient information so they can only access the information they need.

Contact us today to start your journey towards better clinician wellbeing and, in turn, success for your organization.

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