Surgeon General expresses concern, provides suggestions on burnout and resignations in healthcare
Healthcare workers are fleeing the industry by the millions as the stresses of the COVID-19 pandemic exacerbate ongoing shortages of qualified clinical staff. Approximately one in five workers have left their healthcare jobs since 2020, traumatized by what they have seen or burned out by overwork and the pressure on inflation on their paychecks.
Healthcare leaders have been sounding the alarm on provider shortages for years, but the mass exodus has made projected shortfalls even worse: the industry will be missing more than three million lower-wage workers over the next five years and will be short by close to 140,000 physicians by 2023, says Surgeon General Vivek Murthy.
Related story: 4 ways to manage provider burnout during the pandemic
“The nation’s health depends on the well-being of our health workforce. Confronting the long-standing drivers of burnout among our health workers must be a top national priority,” said Murthy in a new Surgeon General’s Advisory brief released this spring.
“COVID-19 has been a uniquely traumatic experience for the health workforce and for their families, pushing them past their breaking point. 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. This Surgeon General’s Advisory outlines how we can all help heal those who have sacrificed so much to help us heal.”
The 76-page document offers detailed recommendations on preventing, recognizing, and addressing burnout and coping with staffing shortages in an overworked healthcare system, including:
Transforming workplace culture to be more responsive and supportive of worker needs
Healthcare workplaces need to develop programs and policies that promote physical and mental health for their staff members. These policies should include staff perspectives and input on organizational culture and should actively encourage access to mental and behavioral healthcare resources without punishing staff for taking advantage of these tools.
Protecting workers from violence, bullying, and threats
Violence against healthcare workers is shockingly common. In one recent survey, 80 percent of workers experienced violence during the pandemic, with one-third of nurses reporting that violence was on the rise compared to previous years. Staff members also report bullying and harassment from their peers, which must be addressed by organizational leaders.
Adequate security and staffing levels, resources for staff who experience violence or harassment, and sufficient personal protective equipment are crucial for creating a safe work environment for all.
Prioritizing positive connections with colleagues, patients, and leadership
Feeling overworked and under-supported by leadership can lead to feelings of loneliness and isolation, which are directly correlated with an increase in burnout. Healthcare systems must make social connection and community a “core value,” says Murthy, and in more than just a cursory way.
Providers need to be given the time, tools, and resources to make deeply prized, meaningful connections with their patients. Other staff members must have access to optional social opportunities with colleagues and may benefit from team-based organizational structures to encourage connections with peers.
Creating an environment of safety, support, and social connection can go a long way toward avoiding burnout and retaining staff members in a high-pressure job environment – and it’s what these essential workers are owed, said the Surgeon General.
“As we transition towards recovery [from the COVID-19 pandemic, we have a moral obligation to address the long-standing crisis of burnout, exhaustion, and moral distress across the health community,” said Murthy. “We owe health workers far more than our gratitude. We owe them an urgent debt of action.”
“When health workers look ahead, they should see a future where their dedication isn’t taken for granted, and where their health, safety, and well-being is as much a priority as the well-being of the people and communities in their care. Health workers have had our backs during the most difficult moments of the pandemic. It’s time for us to have theirs.”
Jennifer Bresnick is a journalist and freelance content creator with a decade of experience in the health IT industry. Her work has focused on leveraging innovative technology tools to create value, improve health equity, and achieve the promises of the learning health system.