At the start of the fourth year of the coronavirus pandemic, it may seem that healthcare is no longer in crisis — but that is only because headlines are no longer reporting on it. So many healthcare providers like doctors and nurses became so overwhelmed at the height of the pandemic that they sought other employment opportunities, to the extent that now almost every region is suffering from a shortage of healthcare professionals. Though rates of COVID hospitalizations remain steady at a much lower rate than a couple years ago, remaining healthcare providers continue to experience higher rates of stress and burnout as a result of the higher workloads needed to cover persistent staffing shortages.
Unfortunately, many healthcare institutions can do little to relieve the added pressure of short staff, and few are striving to give providers the resources they need to manage their stress and burnout safely and effectively. Ultimately, the only way to end widespread burnout is with systemic changes to the healthcare system — but until then, here are a few tips for healthcare workers on the brink of burning out.
Know the Signs of Burnout
Burnout develops slowly, as a professional’s level of stress must remain high for a long period before burnout occurs. Thus, healthcare workers should have plenty of time to evaluate their mental health and make changes to their lifestyle before they suffer the serious ramifications of full-blown burnout.
The exact signs of imminent burnout can vary from person to person, but most people experience the following physical, emotional and behavioral symptoms as a result of chronic stress:
- Racing heart rate
- High blood pressure
- Aches and pains around the body
- Muscle tension
- Difficulty sleeping
- Digestive problems
- Low libido
- Frequent coughs or colds
- Panic attacks
- Excessive alcohol or tobacco consumption
- Overeating or undereating
- Reckless gambling
- Compulsive behaviors
When an individual has experienced chronic stress to the degree that burnout is imminent, they might experience the following:
- Cynical or critical attitude at or toward work
- Difficulty beginning work-related tasks
- Impatience with coworkers and patients
- Difficulty concentrating on work
- Low or no satisfaction from completed jobs
Almost all healthcare workers are subjected to undue stress, but when that stress becomes unbearable, they need to take steps to prevent burnout — or recover from its initial stages — as quickly as possible.
Ask for Help From Supervisors and Colleagues
To ensure that harm does not befall a healthcare provider or their patients, they need to take some time away from the responsibilities causing them stress. To do this, professionals might talk to supervisors about reassigning duties in the workplace. Supervisors might be able to give a stressed worker some extra time off, reallocate responsibilities to other team members or hire additional staff to take on some of the workload. Stressed professionals might also communicate with colleagues about their circumstances to gain a little more support from their team.
Develop Strong and Healthy Routines
For many healthcare providers, their work is their life. After dedicating many years to study and practice, it makes sense that professionals in this field are so focused on their occupation. However, to prevent burnout, professionals also need to invest in healthy routines outside of work. Eating whole foods, exercising regularly, socializing and sleeping well are critical for a healthy mind and body, so professionals need to prioritize creating these routines to support them at work.
Often, healthcare administrators do not fully understand how their organizations are functioning day-to-day. Especially when business leaders have no experience providing healthcare, they might struggle to recognize the signs of an overworked staff. Thus, healthcare providers must learn to advocate for themselves with their management, which might involve working with administrators to improve policies and practices for everyone.
Consider Pivoting Into a Different Healthcare Role
Most healthcare providers feel passionate about their work, as they know that they are providing essential services to their community. However, if working directly with patients continues to cause high levels of stress and burnout, providers might consider pivoting into roles within healthcare administration. These jobs tend to have more regular schedules and less time-sensitive duties, which might help professionals develop a healthier work-life balance.
The novel coronavirus is not the only reason that healthcare providers are leaving the profession in droves; it merely highlighted the weakness of the healthcare system as it stands. Individual healthcare workers need to stand up for themselves to prevent the devastating effects of burnout — and they need to band together to fix the healthcare system for everyone.