Surgeon general issues landmark report with new solutions to combat crippling worker burnout issue

Healthcare worker burnout was a staggering issue for systems across the country even before the pandemic, and, now, a new report from the U.S. surgeon general hopes to help by boosting benefits and reducing administrative burdens. 

Surgeon General Vivek Murthy, M.D., released a general advisory Monday surrounding worker burnout, an issue that was present before the pandemic but only worsened as COVID-19 has impacted systems. Murthy is pressing for collaboration among regulators, health systems, communities and other key stakeholders to take a “whole-of-society” approach to the problem.

“COVID-19 has been a uniquely traumatic experience for the healthcare workforce and for their families, pushing them past their breaking point,” Murthy said in a statement. “Now, we owe them a debt of gratitude and action. And if we fail to act, we will place our nation’s health at risk.”

Murthy’s advisory lays out a series of recommendations to combat burnout, which is likely to get worse with more than half a million registered nurses retiring by the end of the year and a shortage of more than 3 million low-wage health workers projected over the next five years. The Association of American Medical Colleges has also projected a shortage of 139,000 physicians by 2033.

Some of the recommendations include:

  • Provide a living wage, paid sick and family leave and an evaluation of workloads and hours for all healthcare workers. This includes ensuring there is enough adequate staffing for any emergencies, a major factor in burnout during the pandemic that has also forced systems to turn to high-priced contract labor.
  • Reducing the documentation and other administrative burdens for healthcare workers, which can keep providers away from delivering care. As part of the recommendation, hospital systems need to ensure that health IT is interoperable and equitable. Other examples include reviewing the volume and requirements for prior authorization and exploring which tasks in electronic health record systems are unnecessary or poorly designed.
  • Develop mental health support services that are tailored for healthcare workers. This can include implementing in-person “rounds” conducted by mental health professionals that go by units in the hospital or workplaces and offer support groups for healthcare workers. Organizations also must identify key work stressors that can put workers at a higher risk of suicide, such as feelings of inadequacy and new work environments, the advisory said. Systems must also eliminate any punitive policies for workers that seek out mental health and substance abuse care.
  • Protect healthcare workers from violent and unsafe conditions, including creating new legislation as well as buy-in from health systems. The advisory said that systems have to ensure that all of their workers are “adequately trained for all scenarios and provided with a robust supply of personal protective equipment.”

The recommendation comes roughly a month after a new survey from the union National Nurses United showed major spikes in workplace violence at systems across the country.

The surgeon general advisories do not have any binding actions but are an attempt to call attention to a public health issue.