Burnout in Healthcare Workers: How to Prevent It?

Updated on April 24, 2024

Healthcare workers are the backbone of our medical system, tirelessly providing care to the sick and old day in and day out. However, as with other stressful professions, the demanding nature of their jobs often leads to burnout – an issue that has terrible effects on both professionals and patients. This article sheds light on the causes, symptoms, and consequences of burnout in healthcare workers, as well as how to prevent it.

What Is Burnout?

Burnout is a term that has become quite popular in recent years, particularly in the context of the workplace and mental health. Burnout is a lack of motivation to work and an overwhelming feeling of mental and physical exhaustion caused by prolonged and excessive stress. It is generally characterized by a feeling of detachment from work, a lack of a sense of personal accomplishment, and a sense of ineffectiveness. While it can affect anyone, it is prevalent among healthcare workers because of the demanding nature of their job [1].

Before the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, healthcare providers were roughly twice as prone to experiencing burnout compared to the general public, with about 30.4% of them experiencing it. However, during the pandemic, that number doubled in the first peak of admissions, reaching 63.2%, and dropped to about 34.5% a month after it ended. 

Additionally, pre-pandemic, about 40% of these workers reported feeling depressed and having thoughts of committing suicide. That number has since risen, with statistics showing that between 60% and 75% of clinicians are grappling with symptoms such as chronic fatigue, PTSD, sleep issues, and depression [2][3]. In just one year, this, in conjunction with certain other factors, promoted about 1.7 million people to leave the profession.

People often confuse occasional stress or fatigue with burnout, but they are distinct experiences with different implications. Burnout is more severe and can significantly impair a person’s ability to function effectively in their professional and personal life. It is important to seek treatment as early as possible to prevent further complications.

Causes of Burnout in Healthcare Professionals

There are numerous internal and external causes of burnout in healthcare professionals, both from within the job environment and from personal pressures. Understanding these causes is key to finding ways to help prevent this disease [3][4].

Internal Factors

Some of the internal factors that can cause burnout in medical practitioners include:

  1. Lack of work-life balance: The demanding nature of healthcare jobs often makes it challenging to maintain a healthy work-life balance. Long hours, irregular schedules, and the emotional toll of the job can leave healthcare professionals with little time and energy for their personal lives, leading to burnout.
  2. Emotional and physical demands: Healthcare professionals are frequently exposed to emotionally charged situations, dealing with patients who are suffering or dying, and their families. This emotional toll, combined with the physical demands of the job, can lead to compassion fatigue and burnout.
  3. Lack of professional development and growth opportunities: Feeling stuck in their careers without opportunities for growth, learning, or advancement can lead to feelings of stagnation and burnout.
  4. Financial concerns: The financial pressures of student loan debt, low salaries, or inadequate compensation can add to the stress and dissatisfaction experienced by healthcare professionals, contributing to burnout.
  5. Lack of control and autonomy: Feeling like they have little control over their work environment and patient care can contribute significantly to burnout. Decisions made by administrators, superiors, or insurance companies that conflict with a healthcare professional’s clinical judgment can be frustrating and demoralizing.

It’s worth noting that executives generally have little to no control over the internal factors that contribute to excessive fatigue in medical employees.

External Factors

Some of the external factors of burnout in medical professionals include:

  1. Organizational culture and leadership: The culture within healthcare organizations plays an important role in the well-being of its staff. A toxic work environment, a lack of support from leadership, and a focus on profit over patient care can all contribute to burnout.
  2. Inadequate resources: A lack of necessary resources, such as medical supplies, support staff, or technology, can reduce the efficiency of healthcare providers and reduce their ability to provide quality care. Working under these conditions can be frustrating and contribute to feelings of burnout.
  3. Workload and staffing issues: One of the primary causes of burnout is excessive workload. Healthcare professionals often face long hours, high patient-to-staff ratios, and increasing administrative burdens. This constant pressure to do more with less can lead to physical and emotional exhaustion.
  4. Stigma and discrimination/bullying: When medical professionals get bullied or face stigma and discrimination based on their gender, sexual orientation, race, and ethnicity, it may lead to feelings of isolation, which can contribute to burnout.

It’s worth noting that burnout in healthcare professionals is a complex issue that has numerous contributing factors. Addressing both the internal and external factors is necessary to effectively combat it and promote overall well-being in the healthcare workforce.

Symptoms and Signs of Burnout

Sometimes, identifying burnout can be a bit tricky, as there isn’t a general red flag that can tell whether or not a health worker is suffering from it. To be sure, there are a series of signs that pop up. These symptoms are commonly divided into physical, emotional, and behavioral symptoms [5].

Physical Symptoms

  1. Headaches: Persistent or recurring headaches can be a sign of burnout due to stress and tension.
  2. Frequent illnesses: Burnout can weaken the immune system, making individuals more susceptible to illnesses, such as flu, colds, and other infections.
  3. Chronic fatigue: Feeling tired all the time, even after a full night’s sleep, can be a clear indicator of burnout.
  4. Changes in appetite or weight: Significant changes in eating habits, such as overeating, can be indicative of burnout.
  5. Insomnia or sleep disorders: Difficulty falling asleep, staying asleep, or waking up still feeling tired even after sleeping throughout the night are common signs of burnout.

Emotional Symptoms

  1. Decreased motivation: A lack of motivation, decreased productivity, and procrastination are all common emotional symptoms consistent with individuals suffering burnout.
  2. Depression: Feelings of sadness, hopelessness, and a loss of interest in once enjoyable activities are common emotional symptoms of burnout;
  3. Decreased satisfaction.
  4. Anxiety: Constant feelings of worry, nervousness, or unease can accompany burnout.
  5. Feelings of detachment and isolation: Feeling disconnected from patients, friends, colleagues, and family members, as well as withdrawing from social activities, are also signs that are indicative of burnout.

Behavioral Signs

  1. Outbursts: Reacting with anger or frustration more frequently than usual can be a behavioral symptom of burnout;
  2. Reduced performance in day-to-day tasks: Struggling to meet deadlines, forgetting important tasks, or making more mistakes than usual can indicate burnout;
  3. Using substances to cope: Turning to alcohol, drugs, or medications to deal with stress or emotional pain is a dangerous behavioral sign of burnout;
  4. Negative thinking: Pessimism and a negative outlook on life are some behavioral symptoms that accompany burnout;
  5. Reduced creativity and problem-solving skills: Healthcare professionals experiencing burnout may find it challenging to think creatively, solve problems, or come up with innovative solutions.

It’s important to be able to identify the signs and symptoms of burnout early on. By seeking help and getting timely treatment, health workers can prevent further deterioration of their overall wealth and well-being.

Why Is Burnout So Prevalent in Healthcare?

Burnout is particularly prevalent in healthcare because of the demanding nature of the work and the constant exposure to stress and trauma. Healthcare workers are often required to work long shifts, take on heavy workloads, and deal with emotionally charged situations daily, which can be mentally and physically exhausting. The nature of their job and the time it consumes typically makes them feel unsupported and isolated, and this can increase the feeling of burnout.

What’s more, the stress of dealing with life-and-death situations and challenging patient cases often takes a toll on the well-being of health workers. When added to all the administrative burdens and regulatory pressures they face, healthcare workers are left with little time for self-care, and this worsens their stress levels. Given these challenges, it’s not surprising that there is a high rate of burnout in the medical field.

Consequences of Healthcare Worker Burnout

When healthcare workers experience burnout, the resulting consequences can be far-reaching, affecting patient care, employers, and the well-being of the medical practitioner [3].

Effects of Burnout on Patients

Some of the ways burnout among medical workers can affect patients include:

  • reduced quality of care: Medical practitioners experiencing burnout may provide poor care to patients due to decreased concentration, motivation, and attention to detail. This can lead to medical errors such as issuing wrong drugs or dosages, which can compromise the safety of patients;
  • poor communication: Burnout can affect communication between healthcare providers and patients, ultimately hindering the exchange of important information;
  • lower patient satisfaction: Patients treated by medical professionals experiencing excessive fatigue tend to perceive a lack of empathy, responsiveness, and personalized attention and thus be dissatisfied with the care given.

Effects of Burnout on Employers

Burnout not only affects patients but also employers and healthcare organizations. Some of the ways it does this include:

  • decreased revenue: Employers may face financial implications due to fatigue-related medical errors, malpractice claims, and a drop in revenue due to reduced patient satisfaction;
  • increased turnover rates: Excessive fatigue can lead to high turnover rates, as healthcare workers may look for alternative employment opportunities or leave the profession entirely, resulting in increased recruitment and training costs;
  • decreased productivity and performance: Burnout reduces the productivity and performance of healthcare teams, affecting the efficiency and effectiveness of healthcare delivery;
  • poor workplace culture: When medical providers are emotionally and physically exhausted, it affects their morale and culture, leading to increased conflict and decreased collaboration.

Effects of Burnout on Medical Workers

Chronic fatigue can have severe effects on the physical, emotional, and psychological well-being of medical workers. It can contribute to a range of health problems, such as cardiovascular diseases, gastrointestinal issues, and immune system dysfunction. It also increases the risk of the workers developing mental health problems such as anxiety, suicidal ideation, depression, and substance abuse. What’s more, burnout can lead to frustration and dissatisfaction with one’s career and spill over into the personal lives of the workers, affecting their relationships and overall quality of life.

How to Prevent Burnout in Healthcare Workers | Tips & Tricks

Preventing burnout in medical practitioners requires an approach that accounts for both the individual and organizational factors that contribute to it. Here are some tips and tricks on how to prevent burnout in healthcare workers [6]:

  1. Recognize what you can and can’t control: Understanding the aspects of your job that you can influence and those you can’t is important. Identifying and letting go of things beyond your control will save you headaches and frustrations. Rather than worrying about changes you can’t affect, focus your energy on areas where you can make a difference. This mindset can help reduce stress and prevent burnout.
  2. Check your emotional energy levels: Regularly assess your emotional well-being. If you find yourself feeling drained or emotionally exhausted, it might be a sign that you need to take a step back and recharge. Taking short breaks throughout the day and practicing mindfulness can help replenish and maintain your emotional energy levels.
  3. Set and maintain boundaries: Establish clear boundaries between your work life and personal life. Avoid overcommitting to tasks or working beyond your scheduled hours. If you communicate your boundaries clearly with your employer, they’ll be inclined to respect them. Striking this balance is effective for essential and long-term well-being, and it can help prevent the feeling of being overwhelmed.
  4. Go out: Spend time with family and friends: Engage in activities outside of work that you enjoy and that help you relax. Spending quality time with family and friends can provide emotional support and serve as a buffer against work-related stress. Make time for hobbies, self-care, and relaxation so you can maintain a healthy work-life balance.
  5. Stay active: Exercising regularly can significantly reduce stress levels and boost your overall well-being. Exercising triggers the release of endorphins, which are natural mood lifters and can help combat feelings of burnout and fatigue. Incorporate exercise into your daily routine, even if it’s just a short walk or stretching exercises.
  6. Consider wakefulness-promoting medications: In some cases, healthcare workers may benefit from medications that can help improve focus, alertness, energy levels, and overall productivity, especially when dealing with long shifts or irregular work hours. For example, modafinil-based “smart drugs” such as ModaXL have been shown to keep users awake, alert, and productive without the jittery side effects often associated with traditional stimulants. ModaXL reviews from people who have used it speaks volumes of its effectiveness and safety. However, remember to consult with a professional in the use of cognitive enhancers before starting any nootropics.

By implementing these strategies, health workers can significantly reduce the risk of burnout, improve their overall mental and physical health, and maintain a sustainable and fulfilling career in the medical field.

Conclusion

Excessive fatigue among medical employees is a serious issue that requires urgent attention, especially considering the impact it can have on patients and the employees themselves. By understanding the causes, symptoms, and potential consequences of burnout, healthcare workers and organizations can come up with effective strategies to reduce its effects. This will not only improve the well-being and job satisfaction of healthcare professionals but also enhance the quality of patient care and ensure a supportive work environment that nurtures an efficient healthcare system.

References

  1. How to Prevent Burnout in Healthcare Workers. Retrieved: April 15, 2024. Paycor.com.
  2. Burnout symptoms among physicians and nurses before, during and after COVID-19 care. By Giselle Dayana Valdes-Elizondo, Pablo Álvarez-Maldonado, et al. Retrieved: April 15, 2024. Ncbi.nlm.nih.gov.
  3. Preventing healthcare worker burnout: A critical task for healthcare executives. By Jennie Overton. Retrieved: April 15, 2024. Limeade.com.
  4. Factors Associated with Burnout in Healthcare Professionals. By Sabinne Marie Taranu, Adina Carmen Ilie, et al. Retrieved: April 15, 2024. Mdpi.com.
  5. Signs you might be experiencing a burnout and how to regain balance in your life. Retrieved: April 15, 2024. Darlingdowns.health.qld.gov.au.
  6. 6 Tips for Healthcare Workers Facing Burnout. By Nadia E. Charguia, MD. Retrieved: April 15, 2024. Healthtalk.unchealthcare.org.

The Editorial Team at Healthcare Business Today is made up of skilled healthcare writers and experts, led by our managing editor, Daniel Casciato, who has over 25 years of experience in healthcare writing. Since 1998, we have produced compelling and informative content for numerous publications, establishing ourselves as a trusted resource for health and wellness information. We offer readers access to fresh health, medicine, science, and technology developments and the latest in patient news, emphasizing how these developments affect our lives.