Addressing Healthcare Worker Burnout: A Call to Systemic Change and Resilience

The pandemic has brought health care worker burnout to a crisis level, prompting calls from various stakeholders for systemic solutions to retain essential personnel and prepare the next generation of healthcare professionals. In a recent webinar hosted by U.S. News & World Report, prominent healthcare leaders discussed the grave threat that burnout poses to the resilience of hospitals and health systems. Across the nation, frontline workers have been grappling with elevated stress levels due to systemic changes in care delivery, further exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Before the pandemic, physicians were already twice as likely to experience burnout compared to the general population. Dr. Victor Dzau, President of the National Academy of Medicine, revealed that approximately 40% of surveyed physicians reported depression and suicidal thoughts. Factors such as increased patient volume, the business-like transformation of healthcare, mounting regulations and requirements, among others, have left healthcare providers overwhelmed, with less time for one-on-one patient care. The situation has worsened since the pandemic’s onset, with 60% to 75% of clinicians reporting symptoms of exhaustion, depression, sleep disorders, and PTSD. Nurses are equally, if not more, stressed. Around 20% of healthcare workers left their positions during this period, and 4 out of 5 of those who remained indicated that staff shortages had compromised their ability to work safely and meet patient needs. The cost of burnout on the healthcare system was estimated to be approximately $4.6 billion annually before the COVID-19 outbreak, and this number has likely increased since then.

Dr. Redonda Miller, President of Johns Hopkins Hospital, emphasized the need for comprehensive solutions that address the various stressors faced by different hospital workers. Additionally, “moral injury,” as described by Dr. Robert Cherry, Chief Medical and Quality Officer for UCLA Health, has been an underlying issue. Physicians face multiple challenges, including an aging population, higher rates of chronic conditions, and managing complex health issues while dealing with lower reimbursement rates. Furthermore, the erosion of trust in healthcare professionals and scientists by some segments of the public has left physicians feeling isolated and disconnected from the value of their work.

The nursing shortage is particularly critical. To meet growing demand and replace those leaving the profession, the nation will need an additional 1.2 million nurses by next year, as highlighted by Dr. Ernest Grant, President of the American Nurses Association. He urged U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra to declare the nursing shortage a “national crisis” and request federal assistance.

Dr. Dzau stressed the importance of healthcare leaders focusing on long-term strategies to address the crisis. He called for hospitals and health systems to appoint chief wellness officers to oversee staff well-being and reduce physicians’ administrative burdens, allowing them to focus on patient care. Moreover, he emphasized the need for frontline workers to feel comfortable discussing their mental well-being without fearing stigma.

Leadership collaboration within hospitals and health systems played a crucial role in mitigating burnout during the pandemic. This involved listening to staff’s needs and implementing their suggestions. Collaboration improved morale, and initiatives like “Your Ideas at Work” helped alleviate some burnout feelings.

Cherry, Miller, and Grant underscored the significance of staff voices being heard and valued, whether it’s by following the Magnet model for nursing management, paying attention to physician surveys, or conducting “stay interviews.” They also stressed the importance of leadership support for leaders themselves, as they have faced increased stress during the pandemic.

The silver lining of the pandemic has been improved communication, as the healthcare community learned to relay essential information effectively. Still, leaders must focus on presence and positivity, understanding the issues healthcare workers face, and demonstrating a path forward.

Dzau called for national efforts to drive systemic change, such as pressing electronic health record (EHR) vendors to create better products. He suggested that Congress should provide long-term support to healthcare personnel, similar to support provided after the 9/11 attacks.

The panelists highlighted additional factors contributing to healthcare stress, such as insurance coverage denials and entry barriers to healthcare professions. They agreed that timely corrections are essential to prevent future crises, as the next pandemic could be around the corner.

In conclusion, the healthcare community faces significant challenges related to burnout and stress. The time for action is now, with public awareness of the issue growing. By focusing on long-term strategies, leadership collaboration, and systemic changes, healthcare leaders aim to restore the resilience of the healthcare system at all levels and ensure the provision of quality care.

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