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Friday, July 12, 2024

Burnout – Alive and Well in America’s Workplace


While “burnout” may not be a classic medical term, it nonetheless affects thousands of workers, who, before their work life has concluded, will succumb to it. This is especially true for healthcare workers but can affect all occupations.

According to Psychology Today, burnout is a state of emotional, mental, and often physical exhaustion, brought on by prolonged or repeated stress. Though it is typically work related, it can also appear in other areas of life, such as parenting, caretaking, or even romantic relationships.

Sophie Nathenson, PhD., Director of the Health Management Research Center at Oregon Tech, defines workplace burnout as “chronic, occupation-related stress, leading to emotional exhaustion and disengagement from one’s career or profession.” Whether work-related or not, severe, burnout poses a critical threat to a person’s mental and behavioral wellbeing, says Nathenson.

While burnout can affect any occupation, individuals providing ongoing and service-oriented care to others, can be emotionally draining, leading to Burnout. This could include caring for a parent or disabled child.

Although the phenomenon of burnout has been around for years, the COVID-19 Pandemic greatly contributed to its prevalence and awareness, especially among healthcare workers, but among the general population as well. To be sure, the public was unprepared to deal with the growing restrictions, death toll, uncertainty and overwhelming sense of loss and fear that abounded during and following the crisis.

“While Burnout can affect anyone, those serving in the helping professions are particularly vulnerable”, says Theresa A. McKenna, Ph.D., RN, Director of Psychology Services at St. Charles Hospital, in Port Jefferson. These so-called people-serving professions include healthcare workers, educators, and people working in social services and nonprofits. And like any other form of mental health or addiction, left unchecked, “burnout will soon become a family issue as well,” says Dr. McKenna.

While previously on the decline, the burnout rate among doctors began to spike with the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, according to research by the American Medical Association (AMA) and the Mayo Clinic. By the end of 2021, the physician burnout rate rose to an unprecedented high. One study, published in Mayo Clinic Proceedings, found that the prevalence of burnout among U.S. physicians was 62.8% in 2021, compared to 38.2% in 2020. The unfortunate result is that one in five physicians intends to leave their practice within two years.

“While the worst days of the COVID-19 Pandemic are behind us, there is an urgent need to attend to physicians who put everything into our nation’s response to COVID-19, often at the expense of their own wellbeing,” said Dr. Jack Resneck Jr., President of the AMA.
And it’s not just physicians that succumb to burnout, but other healthcare professions as well. According to Dr. Nathenson, and research conducted at Oregon Tech, 43% of nurses, and 79% of Respiratory Therapists, said they experienced burnout at some point during the COVID-19 Pandemic.

Workplace Factors

Workplace factors such as workload, work-life balance, job autonomy, and support from leadership, are associated with an increased risk for burnout. Pre-existing mental health problems, such as anxiety or depression, and lack of sleep, can also be contributing factors for burnout.

According to the American Psychological Association (APA), health care workers who worked during the outbreak of COVID, and were in direct contact with patients, experienced significant burnout. This is highly significant because burnout among healthcare workers can affect the quality of care provided, leading to an increase in medical errors, and impacting patient safety. Therefore, not unlike other workplace issues that affect healthcare workers, it is necessary to design and implement in-house intervention programs which workers can access for assistance.

Burnout in any occupation can lead to reduced productivity and increased turnover. Since a high turnover rate results in higher labor costs to the employer, it makes sense for companies to adopt an overall strategy to support mental health in the workplace, whether its addiction, Burnout or something else. Larger companies typically have EAPs (Employee Assistance Programs) for workers, however most smaller companies have limited resources to address employee mental health issues, leaving workers to seek help on their own.

Since burnout involves feelings of mental exhaustion, and a sense that one is not being effective in their work, Dr. McKenna opines “treatment for work-related burnout often starts with recognition by a manager that there is a real or potential problem.”

“Management can help by listening to workers and attempting, where possible, to institute changes.” It could be something as simple as flexible scheduling, changing an assignment, more positive reinforcement, or something else.

According to Dr. McKenna, workers experiencing Burnout should take some initiative on their own behalf. This may involve counseling, where coping strategies in the workplace can be explored. Finding a hobby to relieve stress, or spending time with friends or family can be helpful, says McKenna. The key is finding something one enjoys that fits into their schedule. Medication can prove helpful when necessary.

Healthcare workers did not have the benefit of remote work. However, in some professions, the COVID-19 Pandemic led to greater flexibility in schedules and an increase in remote work, which for some, worked to decrease stress. For others, however, remote employment led to an increase in stress, due to a sense of isolation, especially for those with a history of depression.

Strategies To Manage Burnout

Burnout often involves situations in the workplace that you can’t control. But there are ways to address how you cope with stress. According to www.mayoclinic.org:

• For workplace burnout – Talk to your boss about your concerns, maybe you can work together to make changes. If your job offers an employee assistance program (EAP), look at the services offered. If things at work are not likely to change, you might need to find a job that would be a better fit for you.

• Consider a hobby or physical activity you enjoy, such as yoga, meditation, dance or tai chi. Something as simple as taking some deep breaths a few times a day, or taking a walk at lunch, can help relieve tension.

• Exercise as much as possible. Regular physical activity can help cope with stress, take your mind off work, and even lower your blood pressure.

• Practice mindfulness, such as imagery, meditation or prayer. Mindfulness is the art of being aware of what’s going on around you, without judging or reacting. This practice can help you deal with what’s happening at work.

Burnout is a prevalent mental health issue affecting all walks of life. For medical professionals, Burnout can lead to medical errors, creating safety concerns for patients. Per Dr. McKenna, burnout and depression are often related, and either one can facilitate the other. Both burnout and depression can respond well to intervention once they are recognized. Those experiencing feelings of Burnout, whether occupational or not, should seek intervention. Counselling, coping strategies, an enjoyable hobby, and regular exercise, can help to mitigate the effects of Burnout. In some cases, a job or career change may be necessary.