How Burnout Impacts Healthcare Workers

By Heather Savino

Over the past year, numerous news reports and social media anecdotes have revealed how the COVID-19 pandemic has intensified burnout in healthcare workers and caused many to leave the profession during a critical time. The healthcare industry needs to address this development with a higher degree of importance than any other risk management protocol. While addressing the burnout crisis will not be easy, businesses must make it a priority in order to improve employee well-being and patient care. Now is the time to act.

According to a study by the National Center for Health Workforce Analysis that looked at the supply and demand projections of nurses, some states will experience a shortage of registered nurses and licensed practical/vocational nurses by 2030, and a report by the Association of American Medical Colleges projected a shortage of 139,000 physicians by 2033. In addition, The Hartford has been tracking workplace burnout levels among U.S. workers throughout the pandemic, and its 2022 Future of Benefits Pulse Survey found the burnout rate remained high at 61% in January 2022—the same level reported in February and July 2021. This can significantly impact an employee’s productivity at work, and burnout among healthcare workers can ultimately affect patient care.

What is burnout and why does it especially affect healthcare staff?

Burnout is a stress reaction marked by emotional exhaustion, depersonalization, and lack of sense of personal accomplishment. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, one of The Hartford’s nonprofit partners in its stigma-free initiative, burnout is not a psychiatric condition but a marker that intervention is warranted. Burnout can lead to various mental health conditions such as depression, anxiety disorders, and chronic fatigue syndrome.

The COVID-19 pandemic has intensified these feelings and added another layer of stress for healthcare workers. Long, busy days put physicians and healthcare professionals at a higher risk of experiencing burnout. While the prevalence of burnout may be high in a lot of other industries, healthcare systems and organizations are under pressure to continuously serve the community they are in. There are no off-hours in the healthcare industry, which is exacerbating workplace fatigue, burnout, and departures.

What causes burnout in healthcare?

As with the education industry, where teacher burnout was an issue before the pandemic, healthcare worker burnout was a growing problem before COVID-19. Healthcare workers put in long, demanding hours and are generally on call even when not caring for patients. During the pandemic, it has become common for healthcare workers to work 24-hour shifts, all while dealing with the stress and anxiety of trying to stay healthy while treating COVID-19 patients.

Throughout the pandemic, the U.S. has gone through waves of COVID-19 surges, causing an influx of patients at hospitals and filling emergency rooms to capacity. As patient numbers increased, healthcare employees have worked longer days and dealt with increased stress. Healthcare workers have also had to deal with heightened anxiety as they worry about their own health and their family’s health. In addition, they have the mental stress of dealing with patient deaths.

Lost passion

Helping patients is what fuels physicians, frontline workers, and other healthcare professionals. As the U.S. continues to battle COVID-19, however, healthcare workers have started to lose their passion, which is another symptom of burnout. There has also been a shift in the empathy shown toward healthcare workers. At the start of the pandemic, there was a rush to help the healthcare systems as organizations brought in retirees, per-diem staff, and volunteers. The public support and recognition was palpable, and people wanted to help. Unfortunately, the continuing COVID-19 surges added a layer of complexity to healthcare burnout at the same time as public support began to wane. Workers, especially frontline workers, began to question the value of being in the profession, as National Public Radio reported in October 2021.

Staffing shortages

As healthcare workers retire early, quit their jobs, or miss work because of their own COVID-19 illness, staffing shortages have worsened—particularly among nurses. Workers have begun picking up extra shifts, pulling longer hours without taking time off or having a chance to rest. Employers need to recognize this and provide employees with resources for total wellness. Beyond simply getting time off, workers need mental, physical, and financial health assistance.

The staffing shortages have also forced healthcare organizations to use alternative solutions to continue treating patients. For example, there has been a rise in traveling nurses as nurses look for more flexibility. They are leaving their current jobs for shorter-term assignments. As a result, healthcare organizations and hospitals now rely on travel nurses to fill more of their staffing needs, which has a major financial impact as travel nurses command much higher wages than full-time staff. In addition, travel nurses must constantly acclimate themselves to new environments.

Changing workplace culture can mitigate healthcare burnout

Burnout can have significant negative effects on a healthcare employee’s work, from poor patient care to increased risk of injury. If left unchecked, it will take a toll on safety and eventually turn into a physical risk.

In the healthcare industry, though, workers may not feel comfortable asking for time off or getting treatment for mental health conditions. The Hartford’s Future of Benefits study found that employers recognized stigma as a barrier preventing employees from getting mental health treatment. That’s why it’s essential for healthcare organizations to evaluate and take steps to improve their workplace culture. Business could consider becoming more flexible in shift scheduling and providing information on services that workers can use to care for their mental health. In addition, healthcare organizations should encourage workers to use these services and create a culture where asking for help is not frowned upon.

It’s also important to talk with employees who have a firsthand account of issues and understand what’s working and what’s not. Sometimes a seemingly small fix can have a large impact. In one news report from National Public Radio in October 2021, a healthcare organization heard from workers that a broken copier was adding to stress and frustration. They replaced it with a working unit, which resulted in a morale boost.

Heather Savino is head of healthcare, education, financial institutions, and business & professional services at The Hartford. She has more than 18 years of underwriting experience, with a focus on industry specialization in The Hartford’s niche and program business.