Especially during the pandemic, clinicians have been a crucial part of our healthcare system and society, and their well-being is essential in providing good quality, safe patient care services. However, even since before the pandemic, clinicians have been experiencing alarming rates of burnout, ranging across all specialties and different care settings.
Burnout is characterized by a high degree of emotional exhaustion caused by excessive and prolonged stress, as well as a low sense of personal accomplishment in work. For healthcare professionals, up to 54 percent of nurses and physicians, along with up to 60 percent of medical students and residents experience substantial burnout syndrome symptoms. This can have serious consequences on the individual, as well as healthcare organizations and patient care services.
How has COVID-19 taken its toll on clinician wellbeing?
Due to the unprecedented challenges that this coronavirus pandemic has created, it is extremely necessary to acknowledge the toll this has taken on the wellbeing of clinicians in particular. Clinicians have faced burnout, stress, anxiety, depression, substance abuse, and even suicidality from long before the COVID-19 outbreak, but this crisis has now presented more hardships and dilemmas in the workplace that have further exacerbated the existing problems.
As hospitals were overturned and understaffed, many medical professionals put their mental health on the backburner. In addition to the daily job of treating their patients, they now also had to deal with the worry and anxiety of possibly having the virus and spreading it to their family and loved ones at home. Many nurses and physicians were forced to take on extra shifts, as their fellow colleagues may have been sent home due to exposure or laid off due to lack of sufficient funding.
The increase in work hours while receiving a decrease in compensation have fed into their stress, as 62 percent of physicians in the US reported a pay cut or decrease in retirement contributions during the pandemic. In addition, as they worry about exposing loved ones to COVID, clinicians are also not able to see their loved ones as often, creating more feelings of isolation and loneliness that further heighten the mental health issues that can stem from this line of work. A May 2020 study found that almost half of all healthcare workers in Italy reported PTSD-related symptoms, and around a quarter had symptoms of depression.
Why is this important?
Clinician wellbeing is of utmost importance, as it supports improved patient-clinician relationships, higher functioning care teams, and a more engaged and effective workforce. Essentially, it is a win-win for everyone when clinicians are properly cared for mentally. Healthcare workers especially need support as they navigate through the difficult challenges presented by COVID-19 and the long-term effects it will have on the healthcare industry.
Average stress levels for hospital employees have been shown to correspond directly with hospital malpractice suits. Additionally, other studies have found that patient mortality increases and interprofessional teamwork decreases as the emotional exhaustion of intensive care unit workers (physicians and nurses) rises.
Overall, burnout leads to increased numbers of medical errors, increased turnover, reduced productivity, decreased patient satisfaction, and increased healthcare expenses.
What resources are available?
There are many online resources available. Thanks to the coronavirus pandemic, the availability of mental health resources specifically for healthcare workers have increased significantly. From educational sources to a support line for counseling healthcare providers, there are many options for individuals in the healthcare sector to choose from.
One major movement has been led by the National Academy of Medicine (NAM), which initiated the Action Collaborative on Clinician Well-Being and Resilience. Launched in 2017, this movement amassed a network of over 200 organizations committed to reversing trends in clinician burnout, and have a huge library of educational resources available online for clinicians.
Unfortunately, there has been less success in implementing positive changes into healthcare worker settings in general. Various options, such as providing mental health training, deploying regular risk assessments for students and staff, optimizing infrastructures to prioritize mental health and wellbeing, and checking in to support clinicians who require safety net services have been overlooked by many in the healthcare sector.
This leaves the responsibility of caring for mental health on the individual, and it is crucial to move towards integrated active frameworks to address clinician mental health and long-term effects of trauma, starting from within the industry.