More than twice as many healthcare workers report harassment in 2022 than in 2018, CDC finds

New survey data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) are reinforcing doctors’ warnings that the medical field is crumbling under a largely unaddressed mental health crisis and a spike in workplace harassment.

As of 2022, 46% of polled healthcare workers said they often felt burned out as opposed to the 32% who said so in 2018, the agency’s researchers wrote in a Tuesday report. Respondents’ intent to seek a new job rose from 33% to 44%, the researchers wrote in the CDC’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report.

Of note, the portion of healthcare workers who reported being harassed at work more than doubled from 6.4% in 2018 to 13.4% in 2022, according to the survey. Harassment was also significantly correlated with poor mental health, as those reporting harassment were five times more likely to report anxiety, more than three times more likely to report depression and nearly six times as likely to report burnout.

Healthcare workers’ reported trust in management declined between the survey periods, and those reporting frequent staffing shortages increased. Both of those factors were also tied to mental health—those reporting trust in management were less likely to report burnout, and those who were understaffed were more likely to report symptoms of anxiety and burnout.

“In this study, we saw that when working conditions are positive, and where health workers are supported and have the potential to thrive, poor mental health outcomes were less likely,” Casey Chosewood, M.D., director of the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health’s Office for Total Worker Health, said in a CDC release.

Results from the survey, which also polled workers from other industries alongside 325 health workers, suggest that health workers experienced larger declines across most mental health outcomes than other workers during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The health agency put much of the onus on healthcare employers to improve the circumstances contributing to workers’ mental health declines.

“We depend on our nation’s health workers and they must be supported. Employers can act now by modifying working conditions associated with burnout and poor mental health outcomes in health settings,” CDC Chief Medical Officer Debra Houry, M.D., said in a release. “And, CDC’s National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health will be launching a national campaign—the Impact Wellbeing campaign—to provide health employers with resources to improve worker mental health.”

CDC encouraged employers to create more supportive work environments by facilitating greater worker participation in workplace decision-making and stronger trust between workers and management as well as by installing “proactive and helpful” supervisors who promote psychological health and harassment-free workplaces.

Though healthcare professional organizations have spent the last few years highlighting their deteriorating work conditions and mental health, an address given Wednesday by American Medical Association (AMA) President Jesse Ehrenfeld, M.D., suggests little progress has been made.

Speaking at the National Press Club, he shared a story about a classmate and front-line clinician who took his own life in 2021 due to the weight of COVID-19 stressors. Even beyond workload, that classmate and others face “systemic” pressures not to disclose their difficulties due to fears that their medical licenses could be at stake, he said.

“While the AMA and others are pushing for legislative fixes to address the drivers of burnout … while we’re working in collaboration with national medical licensing and credentialing organizations on this issue … we’re also urging states and physician employers to audit their own licensing and credentialing applications and remove questions that ask about past diagnoses of a mental illness or substance use disorder, or past counseling to help with one,” Ehrenfeld said in his address.

These efforts are part of the AMA’s Recovery Plan for America’s Physicians, which links the country’s “insidious” clinician burnout crisis to provider shortages that threaten care. Without industry and legislator focus on burnout—alongside other focus areas like administrative burdens and insufficient residency training—the country will stumble headfirst into a national shortage of 37,000 to 124,000 physicians over the next decade.

“Our nation’s physician shortage is not a problem to set aside and deal with tomorrow. It is an urgent problem we need to address today,” he said.