With the authorizations for several effective vaccines against Covid-19 and a strong vaccination program in place, concerns about burnout among health care workers who have been at the frontlines of the Covid-19 pandemic for more than 18 months began to recede. Then Delta became a household discussion as vaccination rates have fallen far short of expectation, keeping health care workers in the trenches.
Burnout was a near-daily topic before Covid-19, but after multiple crushing rounds of the pandemic and with infections rising again, this systemic exhaustion has shifted from a concern to a crisis.
For many health care workers, this round feels personal and tragically preventable. Why? Because, as of July, more than 99% of recent Covid-19 deaths are among unvaccinated people.
If burnout isn’t addressed, it can lead to lasting mental health complications. Multiple studies show instances of post-traumatic stress disorder in health care workers following the SARS outbreak in 2002. Equally worrisome, there will also likely be a continued exodus of health care workers from the industry if health care leaders do not take drastic and immediate measures to stem the rapid turnover rate.
Health care workers have shown up day after day, in the most difficult of circumstances, and it is time — past time, actually — to show up for them. Health care leaders have a responsibility to reinforce resilience and protect mental wellness as health care workers continue to grapple with the complexities of treating Covid-19.
Although it’s tempting to push off focused improvement under the guise of “Let’s just get through this moment before making any changes,” delaying the important work of addressing burnout does a disservice to health care workers who need support and relief now. Even as hospitals continue to see influxes of Covid-19 patients, there are steps health care leaders can take right now to advance welcome and much-needed changes.
Know and articulate organizational goals and values and connect these to current initiatives. Health care should not be willing to accept staff injury and caregiver exhaustion as inevitable. Leaders can — and must — prioritize creating a culture of safety throughout health care, where employees know they will be both safe and supported within the workplace. Many other complex, high-risk industries, such as nuclear power and aviation, have implemented high reliability practices with rigorous processes to protect employees — and, by extension, create safer operations. Covid-19 can be the catalyst to finally move toward addressing persistent safety issues in health care in an intentional, systemic way.
Speak out in support of vaccines. Although health care leaders may not be able to scrub in alongside their clinical team members, they can use their influence to speak out in support of Covid-19 vaccines. Misinformation about these vaccines is rampant, and hospital, health system, and medical center leaders and employees can all play roles in increasing confidence about the vaccines within their respective communities. Increasing vaccination rates is an essential element to finding relief for workers caring for Covid-19 patients and to standing alongside staff in a tangible, visible way.
Engage frontline workers early and often. Burnout is driven by workplace conditions, and no one has a better perspective on what works — and what doesn’t — in health care organizations than those working directly with patients. They’ve seen policies and internal practices (that don’t always match policies) pushed to the limit over the last 18 months and have invaluable insights. Successful change initiatives are informed by the experiences of employees at every level and in a variety of roles. It’s important to engage those on the frontlines to understand their experiences and empower them as agents of change to help drive lasting improvements. It is more critical than ever to listen to learn what employees need now and to address their barriers and challenges.
Health care has countless lessons to learn from Covid-19 — and even more opportunities to build back stronger and better on the other side of the pandemic. Health care leaders must take these lessons to heart and drive positive and lasting change. The health care workforce and the people they serve deserve nothing less.
Anne Marie Benedicto is vice president of the Joint Commission Center for Transforming Healthcare.