Healthcare Burnout in a Global Pandemic

Stating the obvious in what’s proved to be a difficult year for most, one of the hardest-hit industries during the rise of COVID-19 is healthcare. These complex institutions, already struggling with talent shortages, are now

facing a new challenge in terms of working with a highly infectious disease with limited resources and overwhelming patient loads. In the face of these challenges, many workers are facing several threats of burnout.

Mitigating burnout is a critical part of managing healthcare workers, and one that taps directly into a leadership mindset of thinking creatively and focusing on the health and well-being of all people involved. Here, we’ll talk about the threat of burnout in this industry, why it’s happening, and broad approaches that healthcare leadership is utilizing to address burnout in their stakeholder populations.

What is Burnout in Healthcare?

When it comes to the work of doctors, nurses, and technicians on the frontline of COVID-19 treatment, the term “burnout” has a loaded meaning beyond what we might think about it. That’s because when we think of burnout, we think of exhaustion, overwork, and lack of motivation that requires time off and relaxation.

As the TCTMD reports, howeve, burnrout for medical professionals, especially those treating COVID-19 patients, is more akin to Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. The stress of the situation, including the threat level of the work involved and the lack of real resources, makes treating patients more akin to a warzone than a hospital.

There are several reasons for this:

  1. Lack of staff. Hospitals were already facing severe talent shortages, especially in nursing, which led to many institutions struggling with their patient population but maintaining a high level of care. But with the onrush of COVID-19, this lack is even more problematic. Compile that with the rising infection rate of medical professionals who are exposed to COVID-19, and you have a recipe for a lack of support.
  1. Lack of equipment and organization. The kinds of equipment needed to properly treat patients has been in short supply for numerous reasons. Not only does this add stress to an already-stressed professional population, but it heightens the limitations of what they can do to help patients or minimize their exposure.
  1. Lack of communication or collaboration between management and professionals on the floor. Inventory needs to be stocked. Supplies need to be replenished. Important equipment needs to be where it is most needed. This is a job of logistics and management to coordinate and ensure that these items are taken care of so that doctors and nurses don’t have to worry about it. When this breaks down, as it does when supply chains or the workforce has been disrupted, it places an extra burden on healthcare professionals.

Because healthcare is such a complex system, all of these areas can impact workers such that they experience stress. Place that on top of exhausted professionals who are constantly wrapped in PPE and working long shifts working with a sick and struggling patient population, and there is a real potential for severe burnout.

What is the Fallout for Hospitals Experiencing Widespread Burnout?

In an issue of the Nature Public Health Emergency Collection, a survey questionnaire for healthcare workers working in COVID-19 situations illustrates the existence of Burnout Syndrome, where extended work in stressful conditions is reducing the ability of professionals to do their jobs.

What does this mean for hospitals? It means that there is a higher turnover for trained professionals who cannot continue to work at such a pace. It also means that the professionals that stay may be operating, through no fault of their own, at less than optimal capacity, which can endanger patients. Finally, it means that caretakers treating COVID-19 patients are more likely to make mistakes in their care, leaving them susceptible to infection.

These problems were real problems before COVID-19 even struck. With the pandemic, the real threat of lethal infection not just for a worker, but their entire family is a major factor in the PTSD-like symptoms of Burnout Syndrome.

In all cases, healthcare workers and patients are in danger without proper support.

What can Healthcare Leadership Do?

There are a few approaches that leaders and experts in healthcare are suggesting helping mitigate burnout:

  1. Utilize technology for remote work. New telehealth and collaboration tools are supporting remote workforces and remote treatments for patients. This helps promote social distancing while minimizing the direct contact nurses and doctors need with patients and each other. Likewise, these systems can help professionals track documents and notes so that they can work well more quickly.
  1. Using the strengths of employees to think outside the box. With the shortage of employees available, leaders must leverage the skills of their employees where they are best used. For example, you can pull workers from business administration to help manage logistical tasks outside of their normal work, managing things like supply organization, calendars, and scheduling. Thinking creatively ensures that the burden of healthcare in this challenging time doesn’t fall 100% on the shoulders of those directly providing care.
  1. Thinking about how technology can provide new ways to streamline treatment. Currently, there are several COVID-19 tests on the market, including those that are quick-tests that can be given through a drive-thru format. By using testing tech like this, you can offload the necessity for testing and adjust capacity from your doctors and nurses to an outside operation. This leaves more space and energy in the hospital for direct treatment while identification and prevention measures are happening elsewhere.
  1. Listen to the needs of people on the ground. Don’t ever, ever assume that you’ve figured out what patients or doctors need. Talk to your employees regularly and use their responses as the kind of intelligence you need to make the right decisions for them.

The Bottom Line

It’s a challenging time for healthcare workers, the heroes on the frontline of COVID-19. And, like most businesses or complex operations, they are bearing the burden not just of their jobs but of the surrounding logistics and decision making around them. With a clear strategy geared towards your people and the people in your care, you can maintain an agile organization that responds to the needs of your patients and stakeholders in even the most challenging times.