Six Ways to Mitigate Health Worker Burnout

Dr. Vivek Murthy, the U.S. Surgeon General, recently issued an advisory regarding the current health worker burnout crisis, which has resulted in a significant number of resignations and staffing shortages. The advisory webpage contains various resources including a cause analysis as well as recommended mitigation measures that health care providers and other employers might implement in order to reduce worker burnout. We outline key recommendations below that may serve as a helpful starting point for health care providers and others to formulate a health care burnout mitigation strategy.

Even before the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, the National Academy of Medicine found that, in 2019, burnout had reached “crisis” levels with over half of health workers (including nurses, physicians, residents and medical students) suffering from burnout. Those numbers only increased once the COVID-19 pandemic took its toll, severely affecting the mental health condition of such health workers (e.g., the CDC reported that more than 50% of public health workers exhibited symptoms of burnout-related mental health conditions). These mental health conditions have adversely affected the provision of health care on account of labor shortages and gaps in primary care, as well as limits to health care access.

The Surgeon General’s Advisory Addressing Health Worker Burnout sets forth the following recommendations for health care providers to address the worker burnout crisis:

  1. Transform workplace culture to empower health workers and be responsive to their voices and needs.
    • This measure would involve formally engaging with health workers to better understand their challenges and concerns and actively collaborating with such workers to improve processes, procedures, and culture.
  2. Eliminate punitive policies for seeking mental health and substance use disorder care.
    • This measure would help eliminate the stigma associated with such conditions/disorders by encouraging workers to seek counseling and other treatment for such conditions/disorders (and making such treatment and counseling more easily accessible).
  3. Protect the health, safety, and well-being of all health workers.
    • This measure might involve a variety of worker well-being measures such as increased living wages, enhanced paid sick/family leave, childcare resources, formal workload assessments, financial counseling/support, surge capacity for staffing shortages, protective equipment, workplace verbal/physical abuse avoidance, etc.
  4. Reduce administrative burdens to help health workers have productive time with patients, communities, and colleagues.
    • This measure could involve a reduction in administrative task responsibility as compared to direct patient care responsibility as well as an increased focus on relationship building among work colleagues and the greater community.
  5. Prioritize social connection and community as a core value of the health care system.
    • This measure would require undertaking formal measures to prioritize team-based approaches to care and enhance collaboration among colleagues to avoid feelings of isolation.
  6. Invest in public health and our public health workforce.
    • This measure could involve a variety of initiatives such as clinical/community partnerships, disease monitoring systems, health information/education projects, community health needs and disparities assessments, etc.

Overall, resolving the health care burnout crisis will not happen overnight but will require a multi-faceted approach from the entire health care industry to improve working conditions, patient care/engagement and cooperation among the various industry groups.