Danger Ahead: A Look at Burnout in Healthcare

Burnout. We hear the word all the time these days, but do we have a good understanding of what it is — and how it can impact the work we do?

The reality is that most Americans have experienced work-related burnout at one time or another. In fact, a 2018 Gallup survey found that 23 percent of participants reported feeling burned out at work “very often or always,” while another 44 percent feel burned out sometimes.

In most work environments, burnout can lead to a dip in productivity or a negative impact on an employee’s quality of work. But in a healthcare environment, that can translate to a danger to the affected employee, other employees, and patients. 

What Burnout Looks & Feels Like

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You may never have identified yourself as having burnout, but you’re likely familiar with what it feels like. Burnout is defined as “a state of emotional, mental, and often physical exhaustion brought on by prolonged or repeated stress.”

Burnout isn’t always related to work — it can sometimes be the result of stress from parenting, taking care of an elderly or sick relative, or a romantic relationship. But work is the most common cause.

If a healthcare worker is experiencing burnout, it may show up in a variety of ways, including physical symptoms:

  • Expressing cynicism or becoming increasingly critical at work
  • Having difficulty motivating his or herself to complete tasks
  • Becoming irritable with coworkers or patients
  • Lacking the energy to be productive
  • Having difficulty concentrating
  • Not finding satisfaction in work, even if previously successful or enjoyable
  • Using food, drugs, or alcohol to help cope
  • Having sleep difficulties or changes in routine
  • Dealing with more frequent headaches
  • Having GI issues

Feeling burned out is often the result of stress from one of three major causes in the workplace — unclear or unrealistic expectations, a dysfunctional workplace, or a perceived or real lack of support. Having a diminished work/life balance is also often a factor when burnout develops.

How Burnout Can Impact Safety

Burnout in any job hurts. Burnout as a healthcare staffer can have disastrous consequences.

But it’s also incredibly common. The healthcare environment is filled with potential stressors, including a sometimes-overwhelming pace, intense demands, and a high sense of responsibility. 

All of those stressors add up to an increased risk for burnout, and there’s a demonstrated link between burnout and the risk of medical errors. When employees feel emotionally impacted by the stresses of their work, the number of healthcare-associated infections increases, while patient access to care diminishes.

Beyond having a negative association with patient care, burnout in healthcare workers also greatly increases the danger to the workers themselves, making them more likely to experience depression or suicidal tendencies.

“Burnout causes a compromise in an employee’s quality of work,” says Max Farrell, CEO & Co-Founder at WorkHound. “If healthcare workers are feeling burnout, they are potentially compromising patient safety. Healthcare workers have a responsibility to so many different stakeholders. In an environment of care and with responsibility for lives, there’s no room for compromised care — so it’s essential to ensure the workers themselves are cared for.”

If you believe an employee to be experiencing burnout, it’s important to take action to try and help. Even small gestures can make a big impact.

“Any gesture companies can implement that shows employees how much they’re appreciated and respected — that you have empathy for the work they’re doing — can go really far in helping them overcome burnout,” Farrell says.

A feedback tool like WorkHound can help you keep an eye out for signs of burnout in your healthcare team. Sign up for a free demo to learn how we can help.