Healthcare Professional Burnout: Symptoms and Solutions

Stressed out healthcare worker dealing with burnout l Greenville, SC 29615

Define Burnout

The Mayo Clinic defines burnout as “a special type of work-related stress — a state of physical or emotional exhaustion that also involves a sense of reduced accomplishment and loss of personal identity.” Are you metaphorically raising your hand, saying, “Yes! This is me!”? If so, know that you’re not alone. Burnout is actually a medical diagnosis clearly showing that there are thousands of healthcare professionals across the globe who can relate to your experience. However, the fact that others are also experiencing burnout doesn’t diminish the difficulty of your personal experience with it. Burnout can correlate with fatigue, sadness, irritability, higher susceptibility to illness, misuse of alcohol and/or drugs, and high blood pressure. It affects you personally, but it also affects those who live with you, interact with you, and look to you for their healthcare needs. 

AHRQ has a great article titled Physician Burnout, and this excerpt is something to consider:

“In recent years, the rising prevalence of burnout among clinicians (over 50 percent in some studies) has led to questions on how it affects access to care, patient safety, and care quality. Burned-out doctors are more likely to leave practice, which reduces patients’ access to and continuity of care. Burnout can also threaten patient safety and care quality when depersonalization leads to poor interactions with patients and when burned-out physicians suffer from impaired attention, memory, and executive function.”

Burnout has been a thorn in the side of healthcare since long before the coronavirus pandemic; however, the current crisis of changing rules, inherent risks, lack of support and little reprieve may have you feeling burdened more than ever before. You are assuming the roles of counselor, clergy, and company for isolated patients who cannot see their families. Your job description may feel like it is growing daily… and your burnout may be growing too.

When a crisis happens, we can buckle down and push through knowing that the crisis is temporary. What happens when we live in “crisis mode” for a prolonged period of time? When our “new normal” doesn’t feel sustainable, but we don’t know how to change it? Hopelessness can settle in. It’s okay to feel weary and to want this difficult season to end. That’s normal. But you don’t have to feel hopeless. 

Risk Factors and Symptoms of Healthcare Burnout

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Which of these statements resonate with you?

  1. I work long hours and my department is short-staffed.
  2. I wear PPE all day, but still feel guilty about potentially exposing my family to COVID along with other diseases. 
  3. The rules and responsibilities in my role are constantly changing – due to COVID, a merger, or frequent turnover. Expectations aren’t always clear or they take away from basic bedside care.
  4. The healthcare professionals, including myself, are drained, frustrated, and lacking positivity.
  5. I lack control over my schedule and my workload. 
  6. I don’t feel like I can’t care about my patients in the same way that I used to.
  7. My shifts are chaotic.
  8. “I just want to be a bedside caregiver.  I don’t want to deal with the politics, the management changes, the expectations of productivity versus basic patient interaction, etc.”

If you resonate with any of the statements above, you could be at risk of burnout. Burnout can be felt in the following ways: low energy, increased cynicism, difficulty concentrating, mental and physical exhaustion, total dread when your morning alarm goes off just to name a few. This laundry list of symptoms is long – but not as long as the work day feels when you’re experiencing burnout. In your role as a medical professional, burnout is a big deal. It was common in your profession even before COVID-19, but is now rampant. It is felt by all health care professionals including nurses, doctors, pharmacists, radiology technicians, phlebotomists and lab techs, patient care technicians, unit secretaries, and many more. 

You may already be experiencing some of these symptoms of burnout, and you may be noticing its effect on your interactions with family and with patients. But there’s good news: it doesn’t have to stay this way! Even if COVID-19 sticks around, even if your work conditions are still chaotic, even if you’re wearing a mask until 2024 – you can take practical steps to begin distancing yourself from burnout, and begin to feel like “your old self” again.

Solutions to Burnout in Healthcare Professionals

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Recognize the risk factors. Understanding the root of the problem, and accepting that you want to see positive change happen in your life, is Step 1! Take five minutes to write down an inventory of your “current state.” Think about your exhaustion level, your emotional health, your work environment, and your interactions with others.

Remember why you chose your profession. In chaotic seasons, it’s easy for your “why” to get lost in the noise. Think about what initially led you to the healthcare profession. What do you love about it? What are you thankful for? Is it your patients, your favorite coworker, the ability to put food on the table for your family? Make a list of 10 things you love about working in healthcare. Keep it in your purse or wallet, or somewhere you’ll see it frequently.

Schedule self-care. This is not going to be easy! With your busy schedule, self-care is going to get squeezed out without intentionality. In the next week, find two times that you can block off as “me time.” Go for a walk, listen to music, read a book, or just take a nap! Do something that, as Marie Kondo famously says, “sparks joy.” You may need your spouse to hold you accountable to this (and watch the kids so that you can get away)! Give yourself something restorative to look forward to.

Connect with your support system outside of work. It’s easy to think that the non-healthcare family and friends in your life won’t understand, or don’t want to listen to you talk about work. While you don’t want to bombard them, it is healthier for you to talk than it is for you to suppress what you’re feeling. If people ask you about how work is going, don’t hesitate to share your experience. Hear their perspectives. If they offer you support, take it! It’s okay to allow others to bring you a meal or watch the kids for a night. They want to support you, and there’s nothing wrong with accepting that support.

Get adequate sleep! There may be nights where burnout causes you to have difficulty sleeping. Do your best to keep a consistent sleep routine. Even if you can’t fall asleep immediately, try to go to bed and wake up at the same time every day.

Don’t succumb to poor eating habits. Your body needs all of the energy and nutrients it can get! This doesn’t mean you can’t treat yourself to the occasional desert or “cheat meal.” But, don’t tell yourself that you “deserve” a Big Mac after every difficult shift (though tempting). Try to push through those post-shift cravings and fuel yourself with foods your body and mind will thank you for.

Seek professional help. If you are practicing self-care, continuing healthy habits, connecting with your support system and still don’t feel like yourself, that’s okay. Consider talking with a mental health professional to learn how counseling helps with professional burnout. Sometimes we need a “neutral third party” to speak into our situation and help us consider our circumstances from a different perspective. Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) could be a game-changer for you. 

Experiencing burnout does not mean you’re failing, and you do not have to feel alone as you seek solutions. If you’d like to set up an appointment, call our Intake Coordinator at 864-214-2084 (option 1) or send me a message through our website.