Healthcare Burnout: 5 Warning Signs

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Overview

Healthcare Burnout: 5 Warning Signs

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Are you feeling disillusioned by a job that once sparked passion and creativity? Having a hard time concentrating during the day and trouble sleeping at night? Becoming irritable and impatient with your colleagues and patients? If you answered ‘yes’ to any of these questions, you could be suffering from occupational burnout.

And you’re not alone. Burnout has become an increasingly serious problem in the United States. In one survey by McKinsey & Company, 49 percent of employees reported feeling at least somewhat burned out on the job. 

If you work in healthcare, you’re even more likely to report feeling the negative impacts of work-related stress. In this survey of frontline healthcare workers, 55 percent reported feeling “burned out” and 49 percent reported feeling “anxious” at work. One in five of these workers went one step further and reported feeling “angry” when going to work.

So what exactly is occupational burnout? What puts you at risk, and what are the key signs? Why is it dangerous? And, perhaps most importantly, what can we do to prevent and mitigate burnout in our hustle-heavy society? Keep reading for answers to these questions and more.

Defining Occupational Burnout

American psychologist Herbert Freudenberger first used the term “burnout” in the 1970s. Back then, he was referring to the repercussions of “severe stress and high ideals” in the “helping” professions (read: healthcare). Since that time, it has become a catch-all term for feelings of work-related exhaustion and detachment — no matter the occupation.

Fast forward to 2019, and the World Health Organization (WHO) officially recognized “burnout” as a work-related phenomenon. The 11th Revision of the International Classification of Diseases (ICD-11) now defines it as a syndrome caused by chronic, unmanaged workplace stress. This occupational burnout manifests in three primary ways:

healthcare job burnout
  • depleted energy and exhaustion
  • increased detachment from and disillusionment about work
  • decreased productivity at work

It seems safe to assume that most healthcare workers have experienced one or more of these, especially given the ongoing pandemic. But why are workers in healthcare more at risk for this phenomenon than those in other professions?

Risk Factors for Occupational Burnout

The broad definition of burnout makes each person’s experience with it unique. Still, several risk factors make certain individuals more likely to become victims of burnout. Consider the following to assess your risk level:

  • Do you work long hours and manage a heavy workload?
  • Do you work in a “helping” profession, such as medicine or nursing?
  • Do you have difficulty leaving work at work and struggle with work-life balance?
  • Do you feel micromanaged on the job or as though you have little control over your work?

Many types of employees meet at least one of these criteria, but healthcare workers easily check multiple boxes. 

They almost always work long shifts and manage complex patient assignments, often while short-staffed. And caregiving is all about relationships, so providers can become invested in their patients and struggle to keep work at work. Finally, healthcare workers often feel undervalued and detached from decision-making at their facilities.

Sounds like the perfect recipe for burnout, doesn’t it?

Healthcare Burnout and the Covid-19 Pandemic

The idea of burnout isn’t new to healthcare workers, who have powered through feelings of exhaustion and overwhelm for years. Add a pandemic into that equation, and you’ve got masses of providers at their breaking point.

Indeed, the Covid-19 pandemic has led clinicians to feel burned out, abandoned, and even betrayed.

occupational burnout

This sense of betrayal stems from multiple sources, including:

  • employers who can’t or won’t protect their staff
  • lawmakers who have politicized health issues
  • a public who won’t protect themselves

Roughly one-third of nurses reported burnout pre-pandemic. Today, that number has nearly doubled. And it gets worse: One study of frontline workers showed that 39 percent had symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), anxiety, or depression related to their pandemic work.

Healthcare Worker Burnout: 5 Warning Signs

The earlier you detect symptoms of burnout, the easier they are to overcome. Learn to identify the signs of burnout below.

Exhaustion and Fatigue

Occupational burnout results in a special kind of exhaustion that spans both the physical and emotional realms. You might notice that no amount of rest seems to recharge you — though you’re not especially motivated to hop out of bed and head to work anyway. You’re worn down and bone-tired, and even the simplest tasks feel difficult.

Insomnia

Even though you feel like a walking zombie, you’re having trouble sleeping. You might struggle to turn off your brain and fall asleep — or perhaps your nights are dotted with wake-ups. Work-related dreams — or nightmares — aren’t uncommon as you toss and turn. 

Decreased Focus and Productivity

The sense of detachment you feel toward your workplace makes it hard to concentrate when you’re there. You’re increasingly jaded, and aspects of your job that used to excite you now feel mundane or even impossible. These feelings, in turn, lessen productivity.

Unexplained Physical Symptoms

Mysterious headaches or stomach aches come on without warning or explanation. You might notice a general feeling of malaise and achiness — both physical and mental.

Excessive Irritability Toward Patients and Colleagues

Your patience is hanging on by a thread. You’re irritable and snippy with your colleagues and short with your patients. The workday feels impossibly long, and all you can think about is getting out of there.

Depression, Anxiety, and Burnout

If you’ve ever struggled with a mood disorder, the warning signs listed above probably sound familiar.

Burnout can arise alongside anxiety and depression, which cause physical symptoms of their own. Half of American workers suffer from these mental health issues — and the pandemic has only worsened psychiatric stressors. Paid sick leave is woefully hard to find here, and with only 1 in 5 employers offering mental health services, it’s no wonder that burnout is on the rise.

healthcare jobs

The Danger of Healthcare Burnout

Healthcare burnout can be dangerous for workers and the institutions they serve — which can negatively impact patient care. 

Effects on Workers

Chronic stress causes physical wear and tear over time. According to the Mayo Clinic, untreated employee burnout switches your stress hormones into overdrive. This can lead to long-term health issues such as heart disease, elevated blood pressure, type 2 diabetes, substance abuse, and a weakened immune system.

And it doesn’t stop there: Increased burnout in healthcare workers bleeds into patient care. Research shows that nurses who are burned out have “greater absenteeism and poor work performance.” In hospitals — where much of what happens is a matter of life or death — these indicators translate to increased risk for patients and more negative outcomes.

Effects on Workforce Maintenance

Burned-out employees don’t last, and the pandemic has only exacerbated turnover. For instance, 92 percent of critical care nurses say that Covid-related stress will shorten their time at the bedside. And additional research shows a direct link between healthcare worker burnout and intent to cut back on hours worked within 12 months.

Healthcare Burnout Prevention and Management

Healthcare burnout is widespread, and the responsibility for preventing and managing it goes far beyond individual healthcare workers. Should employees advocate for themselves and take steps to reduce burnout? Absolutely. But industry leaders must also step up to the plate.

Employer Responsibilities

A company is only as strong as the people who work there — and burnout is a systemic problem that requires systemic solutions.

Improving Decision-Making Processes

Organizational leaders should start by offering healthcare workers much-needed support and including them in decision-making efforts. Preaching self-care isn’t the answer — nor are unit pizza parties. Nurse- and provider-led forums to discuss concerns are a good start, as are employee assistance programs for mental health support.

Supporting Work-Life Balance

Ensuring that employees feel valued may also allow healthcare organizations to reduce burnout and improve staff retention.

For example, the provision of paid sick leave and better overall benefits would go a long way in making workers feel less disposable. And offering flexibility with regard to schedule and work environment is key. This gives employees a feeling of control, leading to better work-life balance, improved productivity, and — as a growing body of research shows — a stronger bottom line.

healthcare support

Workers: Being Your Own Best Advocate

There are many small steps healthcare workers can take to mitigate burnout — and it goes well beyond better self-care. Keep reading to learn more.

Self-Advocacy

Don’t be afraid to advocate for yourself and your needs by discussing your concerns with your supervisor. Request better working conditions, and brainstorm solutions with your colleagues. Even small changes — such as ensuring off-unit lunch breaks for every staff member — can make a big difference in resiliency.

Lifestyle Changes

Kick stress-causing habits to the curb and embrace life choices that lessen burnout. This might look like utilizing social support from friends, family, or an employee assistance program. It can also take the form of scheduling more time off from work or carving out 15-20 minutes every day for an activity you enjoy.

Mindfulness, Exercise, and Sleep

Improve mindfulness by embracing relaxing activities like meditation, yoga, or tai chi. Prioritize regular exercise and sleep. Have trouble with insomnia? Seek treatment with your primary care provider or a mental health practitioner.

Is It Time for a Career Change?

If your employer is unwilling to help and you’ve exhausted your own bank of solutions, it might be time for a career change. There is nothing but possibilities when it comes to a career in healthcare. Want to transition from bedside nursing to a school nurse position? Go for it! Interested in becoming a physician assistant? Check out your options. 

Focus on finding a job that fits your personality, lifestyle, health needs, and career goals. Your perfect match is out there — and Lensa can help you find it.

More Resources

  • Curious about which U.S. states offer the best work-life balance and the lowest risk of burnout? Check out Lensa’s American Work-Life Balance Index here
  • Want to evaluate your risk for burnout? Try this handy tool.

Take advantage of this list of resources to manage burnout and improve well-being.

Madeline Kelso
Madeline Kelso
Madeline Kelso is a freelance writer and registered nurse based in Baltimore, MD. With more than ten years of nursing experience in pediatric oncology, radiation oncology, and perinatal care, Madeline uses her expertise as a springboard to dive into health care’s hot topics. In her spare time, she enjoys planning epic camping adventures, experimenting with vegan baking, and wrangling her two young children.

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