Burnout is not a new problem in healthcare, but the spotlight shining on it has intensified over the past two years. Publications on burnout in medical literature have increased more than 6-fold over the past two decades and accelerated even more dramatically since the start of the global pandemic in 2020.
In scientific terms, burnout is a state of physical and mental exhaustion due to overwork and stressful work conditions. Burned out individuals struggle with flagging energy levels and a surging sense of cynicism. The result is decreased professional satisfaction and productivity.
The Mayo Clinic recently collected data from 165,000+ healthcare professionals on burnout for their report, The State of Wellbeing 2021-2022. Survey respondents included advanced practice providers, pharmacy professionals, physicians, nurses, residents/fellows, medical students, and general healthcare employees.
On the positive side, over 8 out of 10 (83%) reported that they enjoy a profound sense of meaning in their work.
Despite believing in their work, 60% healthcare workers struggle emotionally and feel burned out. Fifty-one percent are seeking professional help in stress management, resilience training, emotional distress, and even coping with suicidal thoughts. That’s nearly twice the 27% who want help with work-life balance and over four times those looking for career development training (12%).
Burnout is Costly.
Burnout exacts an exorbitant cost in terms of illness, substance abuse, strained relationships, and increased risk for depression and suicide. Highly distressed healthcare professionals have 3X the risk of severe fatigue and 2X the risk of committing medical errors. Burnout thus endangers both caregivers and patients.
Institutionally, it drives up financial costs. In the United States alone, a conservative estimate is $4.6 billion a year in physician turnover and reduced clinical hours. Including lawsuits and liability costs may push the true cost north of $6 billion.
Burnout is a Shared Responsibility.
Researchers assert that addressing burnout is best accomplished with a combination of individual and organizational interventions, although certainly organizations are more responsible for addressing workplace stressors at their source and creating a culture of well-being.
The Solution to Burnout is to Rethink, Retool, and Rebound.
Given the crescendoing cost of burnout and the extraordinary shifts in the workplace and world, the healthcare industry can no longer afford a “business as usual” approach. We must fundamentally change the way we think. Antiquated staffing models, outdated and cumbersome technologies, inefficient processes, and misaligned talent are just a few of the concerns heard repeatedly from healthcare leaders and professionals today.
We need to rethink:
- How to manage workplace stress;
- How to recover from crisis and burnout;
- How to apply evidence-based approaches to address workplace stress at its source; and
- How to realign to a core calling and purpose.
To rethink effectively, start with the patient and employee in mind. What change provides the best outcome for everyone involved? Engage those closest to the work to ensure that changes are accepted and to further build trust and partnership.
Evaluate costs and impact to the bottom line. Consider the financial implications across the entire business, not just where the change is being made. Consider also the short term vs long term impacts of the change. Will a short term expense lead to a reduction in overall spending and a more viable, lucrative operation?
Once we shift the way we think, we can build the skills, technologies, and talent practices that will make a difference today and better prepare us for the future in healthcare. We will need to retool key systems, processes, budgeting/income models, staffing, and behavioral and clinical competencies to both recover from and prevent burnout moving forward.
Meaningful changes will require retooling at the organization, team and/or individual levels. They will also require a customized approach that reflects the unique needs of each specialty, organization, team and individual contributor.
Some tools will be key in this phase: skill building in emotional intelligence, process improvement methodologies, supply chain management, and innovative revenue/business modeling. We must look to newer trends, such as:
- “Cooptition, i.e., leveraging the services of competitors to cut expenses;
- Market expansion and increased emphasis in community health;
- Personalization of care;
- Patient-centric technologies for transparent, accessible, and efficient care;
- Increased ambulatory and virtual care;
- New partnerships with payers; and more.
By leveraging new ways of thinking and new tools, we can begin to rebound from burnout.
This phase involves more than recovery. It’s also the evolution of resilient and healthy cultures, with a distinct reconnection to the purpose that compels so many healthcare professionals in their work.
This phase requires agility of action. Think about:
- Using pilots and iterative approaches to take thoughtful risks in your people, process and technology efforts; and
- Adding value in the “new-normal” and creating a scalable, flexible model that will endure the next crisis.
The critical need to rethink, retool and rebound was recently reinforced as a national priority with a new Surgeon General’s advisory to address health worker burnout. It includes guidance to make workplace conditions safer and recommends eliminating policies that punish people who seek help for mental health or addiction.
Healthcare will inevitably face more crises in the future. What we do now to rethink, retool, and rebound will be critical to the strength, resilience, and scalability of the healthcare system.