May 6, 2022

Healthcare Worker Burnout Grows Worse During COVID-19

By Julia Kindelin

Depressed, anxious, and morally distressed are just a few of the words 60% of healthcare workers use to describe themselves after grueling two-plus years of working during COVID-19. 47% of U.S. healthcare workers plan to leave their jobs in the next few years but remain in their positions despite the negative impact on their mental health. 

“Staff morale is definitely low at this point,” said Sara Meyers, a pharmacy intern at CVS Pharmacy in Chicago. “Since pharmacy technicians can get a job with similar pay in a much less stressful environment, keeping and hiring new staff has been a challenge.” 

COVID-19-related responsibilities are challenging the already-busy staff, she said.

“COVID-19 testing, increased home delivery of medications, and vaccination roll out at the store level and at large vaccine clinics across the community took up a lot of time,” she said. “It has been exhausting to keep up, and patients expect the same timeliness they received prior to the pandemic from a smaller staff with more to get done.”

In April 2021, over a year into COVID-19, the NAM Action Collaborative on Clinician Well-Being and Resilience surveyed their network and collected 500 questionnaires about clinician well-being during COVID-19. They found that respondents were burned out from COVID-19, pre-existing large-scale system pressure and high stress levels. Providers cited struggling to keep up with rapidly changing safety guidelines, lack of equipment, and uncertainty about treatment options. 

The survey also found that burnout could manifest as depression, anxiety or moral distress. The World Health Organization defines burnout as a syndrome resulting from chronic workplace stress. Those experiencing burnout may feel exhausted, mentally distanced from their job and have difficulty completing work-related tasks to a high standard.

To combat and prevent burnout, Mental Health America suggests requesting fewer hours, taking time off, exercising, practicing good sleep hygiene, connecting with friends and family, and going to therapy. While these practices may be effective, social distancing measures, an overwhelming need for trained healthcare staff to fight against COVID-19, and stigma have prevented many from accessing help. 

Meyers noted that the lack of staff at her CVS location has increased the expectations put on the already-tired staff. 

“Shift length has remained the same,” she said. “But those who would prefer to work part-time have been asked to fill in more hours where possible. The lack of staffing has made lines and wait times longer, so patients are more frustrated with their care.”

Art Hengerer, a member of The National Board of Medical Examiners Advisory Board and Action Collaborative on Well-being and Resilience, said during a virtual meeting hosted by the collaborative that he “endured several periods of burnout and stress that at the time I only felt the need to become more resilient, and well-being was not emphasized. As a result, I didn’t understand the risk or seek support.”

Hengerer’s experience with work-induced burnout and stress inspired him to be a force for change. 

“I became the chair of a state medical board where I saw many clinicians who did not seek help for their issues often due to fear of potential consequences,” Hengerer said. “It drove me to a commitment to change that stigma of fear to care for oneself and assist others.”

Calls for help from healthcare workers inspired many to offer services to help ease the crisis.

The Emotional PPE Project connects healthcare workers to volunteer licensed mental health practitioners. The (501(c)(3)) organization offers confidential services regardless of insurance and at no cost to the patient. 

In an Instagram Live discussion on NursesofInstagram, Ariel Brown, board president and founder of The Emotional PPE Project talked about the boundaries clinicians can face while looking for support. 

“We recognize that there’s just a tremendous amount of stigma,” she said. “There’s real, personal, and professional consequences that can come from seeking therapeutic support or emotional support.”

The Kaiser Family Foundation (KFF) and Washington Post surveyed frontline healthcare workers on their experiences and attitudes during COVID-19. The survey revealed that almost 60% of healthcare workers suffered consequences to their mental health from their work during the pandemic. Half of the respondents said they were burned out or anxious. Twenty-one percent reported feeling angry going to work. 

Despite the impacts of burnout on practitioners, hires and separations from The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics Job Openings and Labor Turnover Summaries have been fairly consistent throughout the pandemic. Separations peaked in March 2020 at 1.2 million, and hires peaked shortly after in May 2020 at 1.1 million. Since August 2020, hires and separations remain almost identical with a slight rise in hires most recently in February 2022. 

Job openings have slowly risen since a brief drop in April 2020. Despite brief peaks in February 2021 and July 202, the numbers have coincidentally risen and are now the highest they’ve been since January 2020. 

While data shows healthcare workers are leaving their jobs less frequently since the spring of 2020, a “Clinician of the Future” report from Elsevier Health reveals that 31% of healthcare workers around the world and 47% of U.S. healthcare workers plan to leave their current job within two or three years. 53% of respondents said they will stay in healthcare, while 39% predicted they will leave the profession. 

While some healthcare workers consider new employment options, most press on in their fight against COVID-19.“I am left feeling not just overworked, but incompetent in my ability to help my patients,” says an anonymous healthcare worker to The National Academy of Medicine’s (NAM) Action Collaborative on Clinician Well-Being and Resilience 2021 survey.

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