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Preventing and Alleviating Burnout in the Medical Field

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Everyone has heard about the ongoing staffing issue at hospitals all across the country. Nurses and other medical-related professionals have resigned in waves, leaving a system that was already strained by Covid stretched almost to its limits. 

There are, of course, many reasons people leave a job. And yet, when it happens at such a grand scale, it becomes clear that there is a common issue driving people away. Burnout. A level of stress so intense it can inspire people to search for a new career. 

In this article, we take a look at what burnout is and what can be done to alleviate it in the medical field. 

Defining burnout

Burnout as a term can be vague. Who doesn’t feel exhausted with their job at some point or another? Burnout, by definition, is a level of stress that goes well beyond what is typically associated with the work experience. 

Dr Kim Chapman, assistant professor at Regis Nursing school online defines burnout in the healthcare industry as such: ‘Burnout is not solely about job satisfaction. In fact, you can be satisfied with the position you hold but just mentally exhausted. Burnout is a level of stress that goes beyond what is normal for healthcare and forces one’s body to develop symptoms – mental fatigue, fog, irritability, insomnia or  over sleeping and physical symptoms of stress such as physical fatigue, weight loss/gain etc.’

Basically, burnout is a level of stress so severe the person experiencing it may not even feel like they can go on working in their chosen field. Even if they do intend to stick the experience out, the quality of their work may slide as their attention drifts inward – a significant problem to be sure, when you are working in a field in which people live and die as a result of your decisions. 

It seems burnout is something that happens to nurses often. One needn’t stretch their imaginations to see why. Nurses work long, twelve-hour shifts, often on their feet, sometimes through the night. They experience a significant amount of pressure, witness trauma regularly, and, for all their troubles, receive rather underwhelming compensation. 

As the problem grows it can expand into other issues, like compassion fatigue. Compassion fatigue essentially occurs when medical professionals grow numb to the emotional weight of their jobs. 

The healthcare industry needs to keep its employees happy and well cared for. What can be done to eliminate burnout in the medical field?

Provide resources

Healthcare systems wishing to address and alleviate their burnout problem may begin by supplying their staff with resources to help combat the situation. This could include providing opportunities for alleviating stress – gym memberships, yoga classes, etc. and can even go so far as to include staffing professionals trained to help people manage stress. 

Unfortunately, many healthcare professionals hesitate to reach out for help for fear of being viewed as unwell, or otherwise unqualified for their jobs. Healthcare systems address this concern by assuming an open and welcoming environment in which mental health stresses are destigmatized. 

Allow flexibility

Unfortunately, this will often be easier said than done. Inflexibility is one of the primary causes of burnout in the healthcare field, but it also happens for a reason. Hospitals are already short-staffed. They may not be in a position to give people scheduling accommodations. 

Be as flexible as possible. Allow for short breaks when you can, and try to make reasonable scheduling accommodations wherever available. Not only will this reduce burnout in the short term, but it may also diminish the likelihood of turnover by giving your staff a better sense of work-life balance. 

Acknowledge hard work

Medical professionals work very hard. Often, it’s thankless work. One way to reduce burnout is to simply acknowledge that you know your staff is doing their jobs well. It’s worth keeping in mind that the harder a person’s job is, the more likely they are to experience burnout.

For example, ICU nurses experience burnout at a higher rate than almost any other comparable career path. Shuffled from one crisis to the next, they often see more human tragedy in the course of a shift than the layperson will experience in their entire lives. 

Of course, you can’t interrupt them in the middle of their caregiving – excellent work Rebecca, keep it up. You can, however, acknowledge that the work is difficult, and express your admiration and gratitude as often as possible. 

In all career paths, employees who feel seen and recognized by their supervisors are more likely to feel satisfied at work.

Helen Baumeister did her degree in psychology at the University of Hertfordshire. She is interested in mental health, wellness, and lifestyle.

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