By Dr. Patricia Thompson
Over the past year, we have seen more than ever just how demanding it can be to work in healthcare. For those on the clinical side, the challenges of providing high quality care in a complex and high-pressure environment, juggling competing priorities, and coping with high patient censuses, can be very stressful. In addition to the workload, the emotional demands in this field are also high. Relating to patients when they are at their most vulnerable, supporting anxious families and caregivers, and navigating one’s own emotions when interacting with others in need can potentially lead to compassion fatigue.
In addition to these demands, healthcare workers frequently face constant change. The need to keep up with ever changing quality standards, updates in technology, shifting record-keeping requirements, and organizational and societal changes can be taxing and stressful. Furthermore, like most of us, individuals working in healthcare must also balance personal and family obligations. All of these factors together can be a recipe for potential burnout.
The Dangers of Burnout
According to a 2020 Mental Health America survey of 1,119 healthcare workers, 93% of them were experiencing stress while 75% reported feeling overwhelmed. While burnout is clearly stressful on a personal level, it can also have negative implications for patient safety and quality, team morale, and organizational culture. Physician burnout has also been linked to lower patient satisfaction, increased risk of medical errors, higher turnover, and increased rates of physician suicide, substance abuse, and addiction.
Although the focus is mostly on caregivers, healthcare workers who don’t work by the bedside also face many challenges. For example, healthcare administrators constantly deal with demands like the rising cost of healthcare, nursing shortages, changes in fee structures (e.g. value-based care), and an increased need for tele-health. Those in technology must tend to cyber-security and rolling out and supporting user-friendly applications that will meet the needs of clinicians, without creating disruption. Given all of these demands, helping healthcare professionals to develop greater resilience in response to their demanding and constantly changing environment is essential.
The American Psychological Association defines resilience as “the process and outcome of successfully adapting to difficult or challenging life experiences, especially through mental, emotional, and behavioral flexibility and adjustment to external and internal demands.” Given this definition, it’s clear that developing resilience is essential for those who are experiencing burnout. However, it also provides a stable foundation that enables individuals to cope more effectively with daily stressors, so that they can avoid burnout and perform at a high level.
Healthcare organizations that strive to create an environment in which their employees can deliver high quality patient outcomes, while also thriving on a personal level, must provide resources aimed at developing resilience. Ideally, a comprehensive program would be two-pronged, and would include:
(1) Interventions aimed at providing staff with specific tools to effectively manage stress and change. These might include training in areas such as mindfulness, resilience, emotional intelligence, self-compassion, cognitive reappraisal, self-care, reconnecting to a sense of meaning at work, and other similar areas. These sorts of programs would also be supplemented by making counseling and support available through employee assistance programs or other similar mechanisms, for those who need additional assistance. In this way, employees will be able to better cope on an individual level.
(2) Systems-level interventions focused on creating an environment that supports resilience. This might include leadership development coaching and/or training to ensure managers are empowering their teams, developing psychological safety, delegating and managing workloads appropriately, partnering with clinicians to increase their efficiency by reducing undue burden, and building a supportive culture overall. In this way, the organization would not just leave it to the individual to cope with a challenging workplace; instead, the aim would be to create an environment that is less prone to create burnout.
For healthcare organizations to create spaces that best facilitate healing and high quality outcomes for patients, administrators need to emphasize the well-being of their employees. By providing programs that foster resilience, it’s a win for all involved.
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