As burnout spreads, healthcare organizations scramble for answers

Physician burnout may grab headlines, but a new survey shows its effects extend to all clinicians and even up to the C-suite.

The percentage of organizations labeling burnout a moderate or severe problem dropped slightly from 2016 and 2017, according to NEJM Catalyst’s latest Insight Council survey, but that figure remains substantial at 83%. On a more worrisome note, the survey indicates burnout concerns are prevalent in just under 80% of registered nurses, and for over half of advanced practice nurses and clinical leaders.

Forty-two percent of executives categorized burnout as a major concern. 

Concerns around burnout have reached a point where major national medical organizations—including the Mayo Clinic, the American Medical Association and the Association of American Medical Colleges—recently endorsed a medical charter encouraging stakeholders at all levels to address burnout.

RELATED: The high cost of physician burnout: Hospitals spend millions on recruitment and lost productivity

Individual health systems have taken their own steps to address burnout. Last year, Stanford appointed a new chief physician wellness officer to its C-suite.

A majority of NEJM survey respondents said they felt organizations ought to be responsible for the bulk of improvements, including system and infrastructure changes. The report’s authors, however, side more squarely with the 47% of respondents who believe solutions will involve interventions at both the individual and the organizational level.

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As organizations look for solutions, the report points out that the drivers of burnout differ in certain ways from cohort to cohort. Where physician burnout seems most often driven by issues that take away face-to-face time with patients, nurses report burnout “due to compassion fatigue, moral distress, and work environment issues such as psychological safety and hostility,” the authors write.

Not surprisingly, popular solutions among respondents involve improved records systems and administrative workflows to reduce clerical work and increase face time with patients. In many cases, those changes are already in the works, but the authors point out there is no one-size-fits-all approach. They say organizational communication and leadership need to see improvements as well to ensure clinicians have the support they need to work through complex issues.