Healthcare Worker Burnout
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Did you know that the term “burnout” was first coined in the 1970’s by an American psychologist, Herbert Freudenberger, to describe the consequences of severe stress and high ideals experienced by people working in “helping” professions? Doctors and nurses, for example, who sacrifice themselves for others and end up being exhausted, and unable to cope – “burned out.” In a 2013 CareerBuilder survey, 60 percent of healthcare workers reported feeling burned out on their jobs.
Today, “burnout” is used freely by people in almost every industry to describe various states of workplace stress, but real burnout is “a serious, life-altering problem because it means you either can’t do your job effectively anymore or can’t find any enjoyment within it,” says Rob Dobrenski, PhD, a New York-based psychologist who specializes in mood and anxiety conditions.
Burnout has yet to be classified as a distinct conditions in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), but it is generally described as a state of emotional, mental, and physical exhaustion brought on by excessive and prolonged work-related stress. While stress first heightens emotions and creates a sense of urgency to get a situation under control, burnout creates a sense of emptiness, lack of motivation or caring, and helplessness. Initially, burnout can be distinguished from depression if mood and energy are elevated when outside the workplace while engaging in hobbies or leisure activities with friends and family. Prolonged burnout, however, may lead to chronic depression where a person is unable to find pleasure in those same activities.
Both stress and burnout are known to cause severe physical, psychological, social, and work-related symptoms. The most common are:
Although high levels of work stress among healthcare workers have been well-documented for many years, not all individuals experience burnout. Certain risk factors associated with the work environment, demographic characteristics, and personality are known to increase the likelihood of experiencing burnout.
Risk factors associated with the work environment include:
Demographic risk factors include:
Risk factors related to personality include:
There are many strategies known to help prevent workplace stress, fatigue, and burnout. Proactive self-care is essential for maintaining energy, physical and emotional stamina, and overall health. These qualities are especially important in healthcare occupations where individuals are exposed to high levels of emotional strain and often put the care of others ahead of themselves. The American Psychological Association suggests the following steps:
Track stressors – Keep a journal for a week or two to identify the situations that create the most stress and how you respond to them. Record thoughts, feelings, and information about the people and circumstances involved and how you reacted. Did you raise your voice? Get a snack? Vent to a co-worker? Taking notes can help identify patterns.
Develop healthy responses – Instead of turning to fast food or alcohol, try to make healthy choices when you feel tension rise. Exercise is a great stress-buster. Make time for hobbies and favorite activities. Set aside time to read a novel, go to a concert, play games with your family, or whatever you enjoy most. Get plenty of quality sleep Limit caffeine intake late in the day, as well as stimulating activities like computer and television.
Establish boundaries – Establish work-life balances, such as not checking e-mail from home, not answering the phone during dinner, and limit the number of hours you agree to work overtime.
Recharge – This requires disconnecting from work by having extended periods of time when you are neither working, nor thinking about work. It’s critical to “switch off” in a way that fits your preferences. Take time off to relax and unwind, so you can come back to work feeling re-energized and ready to perform at your best. Practice focusing your attention on non-work activities when not at work.
Relax – Techniques such as meditation, deep breathing exercises, and mindfulness (a state in which you actively observe present experiences and thoughts without judging them) can help melt away stress. Take a few minutes each day to focus on a simple activity like breathing, walking or enjoying a meal.
Talk to your supervisor – Healthy employees are more productive, so your boss should have an incentive to create a work environment that promotes employee well-being. Have an open conversation with your manager or supervisor to come up with an effective plan for managing the stressors you’ve identified. The plan may include ways to improve your skills in areas like time management, identifying employer-sponsored wellness resources, clarifying expectations, getting support from colleagues, enriching your job to include more challenging or meaningful tasks, or making changes to your job responsibilities to reduce stress.
Find support – Talk to trusted friends or family members to help improve your ability to manage stress. Utilize available employee assistance programs, look for online information, or seek counseling from mental health professionals.
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The following are questions to help assess if you may be suffering from burnout. Rather than answering yes or no, consider the degree to which you answer each question and how often the experiences occur.
See how well you score on these questions about burnout in healthcare.
A. Inadequate staffing
B. Low salary
C. Too many hours
D. Lack of collaboration/communication
E. Lack of advancement opportunities
F. Lack of good management/leadership
A. Flexible work schedule
B. I find my work satisfying and rewarding
C. Location is ideal
D. I enjoy my colleagues
E. Compensation, benefits, and perks
A. Offering competitive compensation
B. Finding skilled workers
C. Retaining top talent
D. Lifting employee morale
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, F. 13%