They were everywhere. Headlines to the effect of “Health care workers face mental health crisis” were all too common for a majority of 2020 when the COVID-19 pandemic began. Even though they have mostly disappeared, with the exception of an appearance here and there, the problems that these types of articles and news stories covered have not. More specifically, burnout has been an issue in health care prior to the pandemic but has taken a new form throughout the pandemic. About 50 percent of health care workers report burnout. It is not a matter of burnout suddenly appearing, rather, it is more about what the current presentation of burnout looks like given the current situation. But what does burnout mean?
Burnout is largely when an individual’s coping resources cannot meet the demands of their circumstances. It is characterized by three key factors: emotional exhaustion, depersonalization, and reduced personal achievement. Emotional exhaustion refers to feelings of fatigue, lack of emotional regulation, feeling lack of control, to name a few. Depersonalization refers to a distancing between oneself and their purpose and interest in work. Health care workers were once excited about their career, caring and connecting with others. It is now a chore. Lastly, reduced personal achievement leaves people feeling as though they are not making an impact. Health care workers step into the field to improve the health of those in their community. However, when death and stubbornness are the more common reality, it is difficult to feel as though that purpose is fulfilled.
Distance from family, long hours, experience of repeated suffering are just a few of the contributing factors that began this new era of burnout. Since the beginning of the pandemic, this wave of burnout has evolved. In addition to the lingering realities of COVID-19, staffing shortages are all the more real, people are living longer, and individuals are experiencing chronic illness.
Burnout will continue to evolve, particularly in health care, as health evolves. It is not all doom, though. There are measures that can be taken to prevent burnout. Burnout affects micro and macro-level systems, including the quality of care provided, patient satisfaction and mortality, and staff turnover and recruiting. Therefore, solutions should target both an individual’s coping resources to support the provision of quality care and organizational behaviors and resources to support the work that health care workers do. Such solutions can be delivered via individual coaching, group-level programs, and placing mental health resources in place for individuals to utilize.
Burnout may continue to be an issue. However, its impact can be mitigated through intentional measures that focus on prevention. Health care systems are only as strong as the care they provide. By making burnout prevention a priority, health care systems can achieve their purpose of creating healthier communities.
McKenzie Goebel is a mental performance consultant.
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