Work-related stress can lead to burnout for anyone. Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, it was especially prevalent among healthcare workers (HCWs)[i]. Based on initial responses to MHA’s Healthcare Worker Survey, many frontline employees have experienced increases in sleep trouble, physical exhaustion, emotional exhaustion, and work-related dread over the last three months – all symptoms that signal approaching burnout.
The Basics of Burnout
‘Burnout’ refers to the exhaustion and apathy that one may feel when dealing with prolonged workplace stress. Stress and burnout are similar and can be related, but they aren’t the same thing. Stress is usually temporary or situational, while burnout likely won’t ease up until you take active steps to resolve it.
As defined by the World Health Organization (WHO), burnout has three dimensions[ii]:
- Feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion;
- Increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one’s job; and
- Reduced professional efficacy.
Why and how is it impacting HCWs?
Burnout can be especially difficult to notice in HCWs since healthcare is an inherently high-stress field. Some aspects of burnout might feel like the norm for you. You may be used to showing up despite being completely exhausted or mentally detaching from the realities of your job occasionally. While that may feel like just part of the job, it can have serious detrimental effects on your wellbeing.
HCWs have long had higher burnout rates than the general working population[iii]. Confronting human pain and suffering is hard for everyone. Having to do so regularly can be a significant emotional burden. In addition to the psychological weight of the job, many healthcare workers note things like increasing administrative duties and long hours as contributing to burnout[iv]. A study of working adults found healthcare professionals having among the highest levels of insufficient sleep, second only to individuals working in protective service/military – 45% of respondents working in healthcare regularly got less than seven hours of sleep[v]. Part of this is due to night shifts, which disrupts your biological rhythm of sleeping and waking and can accelerate mental exhaustion.
The recent COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the stress that HCWs regularly operate under and has exacerbated the situation for many. With so many barriers to providing widespread, high-quality care, risk of moral distress is rising[vi]. This conflict of knowing the right thing to do or what someone needs and not being able to follow through is deeply upsetting. Due to the unpredictable nature of COVID, HCWs may also be struggling with the lack of control that they have over the situation. This is in addition to the same personal worries that most of the general population has about their own health, their loved ones, and finances. Nearly everyone’s baseline stress level is heightened right now – combining that with heightened stress at work is a quick path to burnout.
Burnout and other mental health concerns can be heavily stigmatized in the medical field – professionals who are used to helping others are often hesitant to reach out for help themselves[vii]. Admitting that you’re burnt out may feel like it’s at odds with wanting to help others. But with well-managed stress, a high-stress job likely won’t lead to burnout – which means that no matter your occupation, integrating some stress-reduction techniques into your lifestyle can help protect your wellbeing.
How to Combat and Prevent Burnout
You can reverse burnout, but it won’t simply go away on its own. You’ll need to make some changes to your work environment or lifestyle.
- Reach out to your supervisor or human resources department about decreased hours or workload.
- Take some time off – before burnout sets in.
- Do some self-reflection and notice what your own signs of burnout are.
- Keep up with basic self-care like eating a nutritious diet, getting exercise, and practicing good sleep hygiene.
- Use your time wisely – rest when you need to rest, but don’t spend all of your free time laying on the couch. Ignoring routine chores can cause them to build up, which can add to stress.
- Add some stress reduction strategies into your regular schedule like deep breathing, yoga, or meditation.
- Interact with your colleagues; making time for peer connections can increase solidarity and reduce emotional exhaustion[viii].
- Connect with a friend or family member and make time to really catch up instead of saying a quick hello.
- Check in with a therapist. Having a professional help you process what you’re dealing with can be a powerful tool.
If none of these seem feasible or effective, check out Is The Mental Health Burden Of Your Job Becoming Too Much? for information on more significant changes you can make.
[ii] World Health Organization. (2019, May 28). Burn-out an “occupational phenomenon”: International Classification of Diseases. https://www.who.int/mental_health/evidence/burn-out/en/
[v] Khubchandani, J., & Price, J.H. (2019, September 5). Short sleep duration in working American adults, 2010-2018. Journal of Community Health, 45, 219-227. DOI: 10.1007/s10900-019-00731-9
[vii] American Academy of Family Physicians. Physician mental health and suicide: Combatting the stigma in medicine. https://www.aafp.org/membership/benefits/physician-health-first/phf/mental-health-suicide.html