- Widespread burnout among the healthcare workforce exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic is a major concern that needs to be urgently addressed, according to a Monday advisory from U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy.
- Burnout is contributing to ongoing staffing shortages, and the responsibility of eliminating factors that contribute to burnout falls primarily on healthcare employers, according to the advisory.
- Systems should address burnout systemically, and a priority is seeking and responding better to feedback from front-line workers. Healthcare employers should also get rid of policies that discourage staff from getting mental health and substance use disorder treatment, the advisory recommends.
Healthcare workers have battled with burnout through the pandemic with few solutions in place to ease the problem. Now, many are leaving their roles or are planning to do so.
More than a third of nurses plan to quit their jobs by the end of this year, according to a February survey of more than 2,500 nurses conducted by staffing firm Incredible Health.
Monday’s warning suggests swift action from healthcare employers is needed to ensure the nation has an adequate healthcare workforce in the years to come.
“Confronting the long-standing drivers of burnout among our health workers must be a top national priority,” Murthy said in a release.
“And if we fail to act, we will place our nation’s health at risk,” he said.
Burnout can be characterized by feelings of emotional exhaustion, depersonalization and a low sense of accomplishment at work. It can lead to other mental health concerns as well, according to the report.
More than half of public health workers reported symptoms of at least one mental health condition such as anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress and suicidal ideation, according to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data from March through April of 2021.
Eliminating barriers and penalties for staff seeking treatment is one of the first steps employers should take to ease burnout among their workforce, according to the warning.
Employers also need to offer staff living wages, paid sick and family leave and rest breaks while considering workloads and working hours, the warning said.
Another major issue highlighted by the pandemic is workplace violence healthcare workers often face. Systems must stand up zero-tolerance policies to protect them, according to the advisory.
An April survey of 2,500 nurses from the country’s largest nursing union found 48% of nurses working in hospitals reported an increase in workplace violence, up from 31% in September 2021.
Ensuring staff have enough time with patients by reducing administrative burdens is another step employers should take, according to the advisory.
More broadly, investing in the public health workforce and improving disease surveillance to help address social determinants of health and inequities, along with countering misinformation, is needed, the advisory argues.
“We owe all health workers — from doctors to hospital custodial staff — an enormous debt,” HHS Secretary Xavier Becerra said in a statement on the advisory.
“They’re telling us what our gratitude needs to look like: real support and systemic change that allows them to continue serving to the best of their abilities,” Becerra said.
Labor unions representing healthcare workers have advocated for better working conditions and policies they say are needed to make the job more sustainable, namely by ensuring competitive wages, better mental health supports and manageable workloads.
In California, workers at two Stanford hospitals, 15 Sutter facilities and Cedars-Sinai Medical Center have all waged strikes so far this year in a bid to get such measures in new contracts.