Burnout in Frontline Healthcare Workers (Part 1)

March 17, 2021

In this two-part series, Qlicket investigates the causes and solutions for burnout among healthcare employees during the COVID-19 pandemic. Below is part one.

Healthcare workers have always faced high amounts of burnout in their work, and the current moment is no exception. Burnout is a work-related stress syndrome that results from chronic stress in the workplace; it can have drastic effects on healthcare facilities and their workers. 

Burnout produces cynicism, emotional exhaustion, low professional efficacy, and lower feelings of personal accomplishment. Already at high rates for healthcare workers, burnout has rising significance due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Burnout Rates

Though it is possible in all industries, burnout is especially high in healthcare. According to Stefan De Hart, a publisher for the National Institutes of Health’s National Library of Medicine, 37.8 percent of physicians experience burnout symptoms—a rate far higher than the general population, which maintains a 27.7 percent burnout rate. Importantly, the studies compiled by De Hart mention that physicians on the front line of in-person care—such as emergency services and family medicine—are at the greatest risk.

Now, in the midst of a public health crisis, the gap between physician and general population burnout is growing wider. One study shows that 44.6 percent of participants experienced personal burnout, 26.9 percent experienced work-related burnout, and 56.8 experienced pandemic-related burnout. The study reveals that doctors are 164 percent more likely to experience pandemic-related burnout.

Causes of Burnout

Healthcare workers are dealing with the same stressors that the average person faces because of the pandemic. However, they also must cope with stress related to their work. 

Robert Shmerling of Harvard Medical School writes that healthcare workers are at a much higher risk of COVID-19 infection, are concerned with dwindling protective equipment supplies, and work longer and more intensive hours. In short, the current expectations placed upon healthcare workers are higher than ever. In all of this, Shmerling points out that frontline healthcare workers can no longer retreat to their family for comfort in order to protect them from infection.

Jacob Andrews of The New York Times describes that in the beginning of the pandemic, Americans hailed healthcare workers as heroes and applauded them in the streets. Now—one exceedingly difficult year later—healthcare workers feel “burned out and underappreciated” as demands for vaccines increase. At the same time, the number of healthcare workers is dropping due to early retirement and occupational changes.

As Andrews goes on to explain, “Over the last year, there have been the psychological trauma of overworked intensive care doctors forced to ration care, the crushing sense of guilt for nurses who unknowingly infected patients or family members, and the struggles of medical personnel who survived Covid-19 but are still hobbled by the fatigue and brain fog that hamper their ability to work.”

Written by Qlicket team member Ethan Forde. 

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