Combatting Burnout in the Healthcare Field

What is Burnout?

Burnout in the healthcare industry is a serious issue, that can detriment patient care, decreasing quality of services.   

Burnout occurs when an individual’s work becomes a source of stress or dissatisfaction. It is often described as having three dimensions: emotional exhaustion, cynicism, and inefficiency. For those working in healthcare, exhaustion can result from long hours—sometimes exceeding 12 hours per day— working in high-stress environments and lack of time or energy between shifts for rest or leisure activities. Depersonalisation often occurs when healthcare workers become desensitised to their patients’ needs due to feeling overwhelmed with paperwork and administrative duties. Low personal accomplishment arises from feelings of undervalued work or unmet goals due to limited resources or lack of recognition for one’s efforts.

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Burnout decreases motivation and concentration levels and can lead to dread and anxiety about upcoming shifts. Employees can become irritable towards colleagues and patients, experience guilt or shame about not performing tasks quickly enough or effectively enough, and low mood due to lack of job satisfaction or feeling emotionally drained. These symptoms can result in physical ailments such as, headaches, insomnia/fatigue issues, palpitations, chest pain and weakened immune system due to increased stress hormones in the body.   

It is important for employers and managers to recognise the warning signs of burnout and provide individuals with sufficient resources and support to prevent this. Effective communication between all members of staff can also help to create a supportive environment where everyone feels valued.

The Link Between Stress and Burnout

Healthcare professionals such as doctors and nurses assistants are particularly vulnerable to burnout due to their demanding work schedules, levels of responsibility, and constant exposure to trauma. Stress can be a contributory factor in burnout and many healthcare workers experience high levels of stress routinely.   

When stress accumulates over time, it has a direct impact on physical health and can worsen existing medical conditions. Additionally, prolonged stress can also affect mental health as people feel overwhelmed by their emotions and responsibilities, leading to burnout. Burnout not only affects individuals, but can negatively impact entire teams, decreasing productivity and morale.  

Employers should empower managers to recognise both the physical and psychological symptoms of stress, so that they can take steps to offer employees support and prevent escalation. Organisations can provide counselling services for employees who may be struggling with the trauma that many heatlhcare staff encounter. Additionally, having policies in place such as flexible working hours or providing access to regular breaks during shifts can help staff members to manage their stress more effectively, improving their resilience so that they are better able to cope with difficult situations.   

Burnout often leads to disengagement from work, which is why it is important for healthcare organisations to foster a culture of support where staff feel valued and appreciated. This could include creating an open environment where staff members feel comfortable discussing challenges they may face without fear of criticism or judgement. Ultimately, creating a positive atmosphere within the workplace helps ensure that employees are supported in maintaining optimal mental health which helps prevent issues like burnout from occurring in the first place. 

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Common Causes of Stress in Healthcare

One major cause of stress for healthcare workers is an ever-growing workload. With an ageing population, the recent pandemic and poor health outcomes associated with the cost-of-living crisis, more people need assistance than ever.  When this is combined with lack of funding and nationwide staffing shortages, healthcare professionals can regularly find themselves overwhelmed. In many cases, healthcare staff members may feel too busy to take breaks during long shifts, and work-life balance may suffer under the pressure of working unsociable hours or being required to work extra shifts. This combination of excessive work hours and lack of leisure time can lead to extreme levels of stress.   

Another cause of stress for healthcare workers is the pressure to provide successful outcomes for their patients. Often, this pressure leads to high levels of anxiety as well as feelings of inadequacy if results do not meet expectations. Healthcare professionals must learn effective ways to cope with being unable to live up to the high standards they set for themselves due to systemic issues, while still striving for excellence in patient care.   

In addition, healthcare workers may also experience stress due to the nature of their jobs. Caring for ill or injured patients can be emotionally draining, especially if a patient’s condition worsens over time or if crucial decisions have to be made quickly in emergency situations. Working in such high-stakes environments requires practitioners to utilise effective coping mechanisms as they navigate difficult ethical dilemmas and make life-altering decisions every day.   

Finally, frequent exposure to contagious diseases can put additional strain on healthcare workers’ mental health and wellbeing. In order to protect both themselves and their patients from dangerous viruses and infections, medical staff must prioritise safety protocols which can be cognitively demanding to keep on top of.  

Staff Shortages in Healthcare

One major factor contributing to the elevated rates of burnout in healthcare, is staffing shortages. With an under-funded NHS and ageing population, the NHS is under significant strain. This leads to burnout, which can become severe enough for employees to leave the NHS, adding to the burden on remaining staff. This results in overworked and demoralised employees who are more prone to burnout. For example, nurses are often forced to work long shifts without sufficient break times, leading to exhaustion and emotional exhaustion. Lack of resources and inadequate staffing can also impact patient care, leading to feelings of guilt and impacting morale even further.   

The rise in staff shortages has been attributed to a number of factors including rising demand for healthcare services, low wages, and recruitment difficulties including shortage of applicants. The UK’s ageing population has also increased the demand for medical services, resulting in a particularly drastic need for extra staff within social care settings such as nursing homes and residential care facilities.   

To address this growing problem, there needs to be a shift towards prioritising improving working conditions for healthcare staff, which will help reduce burnout and improve job satisfaction. This could involve raising wages and implementing flexible working arrangements that would allow employees more control over scheduling conflicts caused by illness or family obligations. Furthermore, investing in retaining the existing workforce rather than just recruiting new staff can help existing staff to feel valued, prioritised, and stabilise staffing levels.   

Ultimately, tackling staff shortages within the healthcare system requires collective action from employers, unions and policymakers alike if we are to protect both medical workers’ mental health as well as ensure high quality patient care throughout the UK’s NHS system.  

The Pitfalls of Caring

It can be challenging for medical professionals to not become emotionally exhausted due to their passion to help those who are vulnerable or unwell, especially when it involves a job that entails long hours, and immense pressure. Burnout in the healthcare industry can have far-reaching implications for patient care, as well as the morale of the team. Understanding how to prevent burnout and its symptoms is essential for any dedicated healthcare provider.   

One of the main risk factors for burnout among healthcare professionals is the fact that employees are so passionate about their work. Caring about patients and coworkers can lead to emotional exhaustion, and self-sacrifice. Whilst caring deeply about your patients and coworkers is an admirable quality in healthcare professionals, it is important to ensure that you do not sacrifice yourself to benefit others. Professional boundaries are essential for maintaining healthy relationships with your patients/colleagues as well as preserving your own physical/mental health over time in this demanding profession.  

Another common consequence of caring is that healthcare staff often expected to take on excess responsibility due to staff shortages. Not being able to give all their attention to each individual or task, can add further stress and cause fatigue. Additionally, when employees feel obliged to take on extra tasks out of compassion for their patients or colleagues, they may experience feelings of resentment.  

Finally, when employees become emotionally invested in the outcomes for a patient due to caring about them, it may make it challenging to make clinical decisions that may lead them to feel morally conflicted. Balancing making clinical decisions, adhering to ethics and respecting patient autonomy, can be challenging when you become emotionally invested in patients because you care.   

Self-Sacrifice in Healthcare Employees

Healthcare professionals often put their own needs aside to focus on taking care of their patients, and this self-sacrifice can lead to burnout. Research has found that many nurses, doctors, and other healthcare workers are at risk of developing mental health issues as a result of burnout.   

Healthcare professionals may pick up extra shifts, and even work through their lunch, impacting their own energy levels and contributing to fatigue and weakened immune functioning. Similarly, trying to maintain a work-life balance can be challenging when working unsociable hours including evenings and weekends. Night shifts can detrimentally affect the circadian rhythm, making it challenging to get adequate sleep, a necessary function for wellbeing.   

It’s important for employers to recognise how self-sacrifice in healthcare employees can lead to burnout if left unchecked. Taking steps to prioritise staff breaks during their shift, offering adequate rest time between shifts, having some autonomy over shift patterns and offering opportunities to discuss barriers to wellbeing, will help to ensure the health and wellbeing of staff 

Feeling Undervalued and Underpaid, and the Impact on Burnout

Healthcare workers often report feeling undervalued and underpaid. This lack of appreciation can cause major stress, decrease morale and lead to burnout.   

When healthcare workers feel unappreciated or underpaid, it can adversely affect their mental health and wellbeing, leading to feelings of worthlessness or helplessness. Long-term, these feelings can manifest into physical symptoms such as fatigue, insomnia or headaches, which can significantly impact their overall quality of life. This can increase rates of absenteeism, adding further strain to remaining employees.  

Another consequence of feeling undervalued is decreased productivity. Research has shown that when healthcare professionals feel undervalued or underpaid in comparison to other positions in the same sector, they often take longer periods of time away from work, leading to lower levels of output overall from their teams. This becomes especially problematic during peak times, such as flu season or during a public health crisis like COVID-19.   

Studies have also revealed that feeling undervalued or underpaid can cause healthcare workers to sacrifice more than just their own workloads; they may also be more likely to make personal sacrifices in order to ensure better outcomes for their patients and colleagues. This could include working longer hours than necessary or taking on additional roles without pay increases or promotions, which can lead to resentment and frustration.  

It’s important for employers in the healthcare industry to recognise these risks associated with burnout due to feeling undervalued and take steps accordingly to reduce them. This could include offering incentives and reward schemes; conducting regular reviews with staff members to monitor wellbeing; implementing workplace policies which promote rest and relaxation; providing flexible working options; and ensuring salaries are competitive within the industry standards.   

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