How to Prevent and Manage Burnout in Health Care Workers

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By Chad Halvorson

It’s no secret that, thanks to the pandemic, health care is facing an unprecedented staffing and employee morale crisis. In a survey from the American Medical Association published in May 2021, 50% of health care professionals were experiencing some symptoms of burnout. The result? A worrying exodus from the industry; nearly 1 in 5 health care workers quit during the pandemic and 31% are considering leaving their current job, according to Morning Consult.

Even before the pandemic took hold, the health care industry was already worrying about worker shortages coupled with increased demand for medical services. For example, in a recent report, Mercer predicts that over the next five years, 29 states will be unable to fill a growing need for registered nurses, a shortage of nearly 100,000 critical professionals.

As daunting as the situation appears, there are practical steps that health care executives can implement to help relieve some of the stress our frontline workers are experiencing and, ultimately, retain them as employees.

Start with the simple things

Fixing what might seem like minor irritants can go a long way to making health care workers feel heard and valued, from repairing broken copiers to one hospital’s solution to give patients iPads, so staff could talk to them without suiting up in PPE.

Other tactics to help manage burnout that can easily be introduced could include offering rewards, not for performance but simply as a recognition of your workers as human beings. Whether it’s a gift card, extra break time, bonus paid vacation hours or amazing snacks in a breakroom, letting employees know they have value beyond the workload can have a positive impact.

Model self-care
Burnout can be challenging to spot in health care because the industry is inherently stressful; many think that exhaustion and mental detachment just come with the territory. Managers and supervisors, however, can be empowered to help their staff – and themselves – by learning, adopting and modeling self-care practices designed specifically to stave off burnout.

To that end, consider offering personal development courses in meditation, yoga or mindful stress reduction to all your employees, and training your managerial staff to not only educate their direct reports on the benefits of such practices but also how to model other desired self-care behaviors, like self-reflection, eating a nutritious diet and getting adequate exercise and sleep.

Get serious about mental health

As difficult as it can be for health care employees to recognize the signs of burnout, it can be even tougher for them to admit that they need help. Mental health concerns are often heavily stigmatized in the medical field, and professionals who are used to helping others can be hesitant to reach out for help themselves.

There are several ways to keep employee mental health a priority without being invasive:

  • Use an emotional rating system – Talking about how employees feel on a scale of one to 10 might be easier for some than talking specifics. Results of a rating system, whether anonymous or not, can aid in understanding where help is needed. (Some workers, on the other hand, may feel open and comfortable talking to their supervisors about their mental health. Therefore, it’s wise to ensure that your supervisors and managers are trained in staff confidentiality.)
  • Talk about mental health, in general, as a team. Group settings can make some people feel safer. Help overcome the discomfort of talking about mental health issues by leading group discussions about them.
  • Teach your employees how to be mentally healthy. You likely have other on-the-job training or meetings. Make mental health just as important. Bring in mental health professionals to teach and offer confidential consultations with them.
  • Learn to spot mental health issues. Managers and supervisors should be trained on what to look for in employees who might need help or encouragement.

Adopt flexible scheduling

Also known as self-scheduling, flexible scheduling is a management approach that allows supervisors to determine what the work schedule needs based on demands and requirements, and then lets the workers choose shifts for themselves. Using apps or other tools, employees can see what shifts are available, select what they want and trade with others if a conflict arises.

Flexible scheduling:

  • Empowers health care workers to live more balanced lives.
  • Increases predictability of scheduling. With flexible scheduling, time is freed up for supervisors responsible for setting schedules. Employees aren’t hit with schedule “surprises” since they are involved with the process.
  • Encourages communication because flexible scheduling is collaborative; there is more communication among stakeholders who are choosing and trading shifts.
  • Is also good for patients because of the problems flexible scheduling solves that historically lead to reduced quality of care such as burnout and turnover, absenteeism and low employee engagement.

Flexible scheduling was injected into the health care industry in the 1960s, but a limited number of health care organizations have been able to implement the approach on a large scale due to technological limitations. To make self-scheduling work requires the right tools and support – and health care’s regulations, compliance considerations, overtime concerns and other standards can add complexity to the process.

Yet it’s not impossible because flexible work programs are not one-size-fits all. If your organization isn’t ready to dive headfirst into the approach, start small. “Managers working within their staffing limits can experiment with flexible policies on a team or departmental level,” advises the Society for Human Resource Management in its article, “Flexible Work Options in Health Care Can Result in a Win-Win.”

Finally, flexible scheduling can help health care organizations reduce turnover costs by serving as a retention and recruitment tool. When done right, flexible scheduling results in fewer holes in the schedule, meaning medical centers can reduce reliance on agency nurses, thereby reducing health care costs and improving consistency in patient care.

Employers have an opportunity right now to show greater empathy and compassion to those on the frontlines in the health care industry. The more health care workers that leave, the more pressure it puts on those still working, which only will continue the cycle of burnout. By using these tools to prevent and manage burnout we can keep some of the most essential workers, where we need them most.

Chad Halvorson is the founder and chief experience officer of When I Work, a provider of workforce management for shift-based workplaces that provides a fully integrated scheduling, time tracking, and team messaging solution to over 200,000 workplaces.