Chaotic work conditions during COVID helped foster clinician burnout

During unprecedented, chaotic times in healthcare such as what the world went through during the COVID-19 pandemic, showing clinicians they’re valued and they’re not facing the carnage alone helps them avoid burnout and stop counting down the days until they quit.

Those are two of the findings in a study in JAMA Health Forum that looked at physician burnout during the pandemic.

“Results of this survey study suggest that a federal surveillance system with real-time analysis of levels of clinician and health care worker outcomes could be very meaningful in addressing the current state of burnout, dissatisfaction, and potential job loss,” the study said. “Despite an epidemic of burnout prior to the pandemic and clear recognition during the pandemic of the toll on healthcare workers, many organizations may not be aware of effective ways to approach burnout reduction.”

Researchers with Hennepin Healthcare in Minneapolis noted that the National Academy of Medicine and the U.S. Office of the Surgeon General have already begun to address the problem of creating decent work conditions for clinicians and other healthcare workers even in a time of crisis. The study’s authors hope that their research will contribute to that effort.

The data come from surveys of 20,627 U.S. clinicians and indicate that burnout increased throughout the pandemic, with the highest levels being reached in late 2021. Even though the vaccines had been rolled out for about a year by that point, data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show that at that point in the pandemic the number of new cases had reached its apex, and the number of deaths was as close as it had been at the pandemic’s worst death rate a year earlier.

Clinician burnout rate in late 2021 had reached about 60%, while clinicians who’d decided that they wanted to leave their profession reached 40%.

“The lack of increase in burnout through the difficult year of 2020 is notable and may indicate a sense of determination and purpose among these professionals,” the study found. “However, the data show how the persistent lack of control of workload, chaotic environments, challenges with teamwork, and a lack of feeling valued by organizations may have contributed to worsening burnout and a rise in intent to leave.”

Just how to make physicians feel valued is a subject that’s ripe for further examination, the study said. However, they dovetail with how to make any employee feel valued in any work environment and include a management team that listens to front-line workers and responds to their needs, if possible. In the case of clinicians, it involves being part of a team that minimizes work that doesn’t involve taking care of patients.

The authors propose compiling a set of key performance indicators (KPIs) that would measure chaos and lack of control as well as teamwork and feeling valued. Keeping track of KPIs could serve as an early warning system to identify clinicians who may be feeling burned out.

“Given annual cost estimates of approximately $5 billion for burnout-related U.S. physician turnover, cost savings could be considerable,” the study said. “Clinicians may work more and burn out because they perceive no options to work less, suggesting it is the structure of U.S. healthcare that, in part, limits the ability to mitigate burnout. This study offers data to support targeted processes to bring sense to a health care system that wishes to preserve and sustain its workers.”