CDC releases free tools for hospitals to address their workers' mental health

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has launched the first-ever federal campaign encouraging hospitals to track and address burnout across their workforces.

Unveiled Tuesday, "Impact Wellbeing" offers the industry a collection of free resources outlining approaches hospital leadership can take to improve the well-being of their workers. The materials were developed by the CDC’s National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) in collaboration with the Dr. Lorna Breen Heroes’ Foundation, an advocacy group for clinician wellness.

The new effort aims to tackle an issue that has swept the healthcare industry. A pre-pandemic study from the National Academy of Medicine reported signs of burnout among 35% to 45% of nurses and 40% to 60% of medical students. Survey data released just last week by the CDC suggested that feelings of burnout, stress, anxiety and depression have all increased in the last couple of years, a trend tied to an uptick in harassment.

Industry leaders sounding the alarm on healthcare worker burnout have also highlighted downstream impacts from clinicians dropping out of the field—for instance, a national shortage of 37,000 to 124,000 physicians over the next decade that will strain access to care.

“Even before the pandemic, healthcare workers faced challenging working conditions that lead to burnout. This includes long work hours, risk for hazardous exposures, stressful work, and high administrative burdens,” John Howard, M.D, director of NIOSH, said in a release. “Hospital leaders need support to implement organizational changes. Practical adjustments can reduce burnout and strengthen professional wellbeing within their hospitals.”

Included among the campaign’s free offerings are a Worker Well-Being Questionnaire hospitals can administer to gauge the current state of their workforce and a workbook of fundamentals for developing new Total Worker Health initiatives within an organization.

It also features a toolkit from the Dr. Lorna Breen Heroes’ Foundation that helps hospitals remove mental health questions from their credentialing applications, an oft-cited factor in many clinicians’ fear of seeking help.

“Like everyone, healthcare workers deserve the right to pursue mental health care without fear of losing their job because of stigmatizing and discriminatory questions,” J. Corey Feist, co-founder and president of the foundation, said in a release. “My sister-in-law, Dr. Lorna Breen, experienced this barrier firsthand, confiding in our family that she was fearful of being ostracized at work if she acknowledged that she needed help. Shortly after, she died by suicide. Sadly, I have heard from numerous families who lost healthcare worker loved ones to suicide who expressed the same concerns as Lorna.”   

NIOSH Office for Total Worker Health Director Casey Chosewood, M.D., said in a release that while some causes of healthcare burnout “may take time to address,” the types of operating adjustments outlined in the campaign are “feasible” and “practical” for hospital systems to implement.

Workers can also benefit from leadership that models professional well-being practices, according to the campaign’s materials. Specifically, NIOSH recommended that:

  • Managers and supervisors make use of paid time off, sick leave, family leave and rest breaks and build in time for workers to do the same
  • Front-line supervisors be trained in supportive supervision that helps staff balance work responsibilities
  • Leadership normalize conversations about seeking mental health services within their organization and encourage those in senior roles to speak publicly about receiving help for their own mental health concerns, as outlined in the Health Action Alliance's Leadership Storytelling Guide