How to Alleviate COVID-19 Burnout for your Hospital Staff

Healthcare Workers are more burned out than ever

Here’s how to help lead your staff through the COVID burnout

First, the good news: Feelings of burnout can be worked through with proper acknowledgement and treatment. The bad news? Feeling burned out isn’t a rarity, particularly in the healthcare industry. In fact, according to a survey, 15.6 percent of all nurses and 20 percent of ER nurses reported feelings of burnout. Similarly, 41 percent reported feeling “unengaged.”

Especially over the past year, “burn out” has taken on a completely new meaning during the pandemic. There’s no question workers in the healthcare industry - from first responders to caregivers -- have been under extraordinarily demanding and emotionally draining pressure. Which is why it’s more important than ever to understand the meaning of burn out, so that you’re better able to help yourself and your team recover -- and ultimately, move forward.

What does it mean to be “burned out” ?

The term “burnout” was first introduced in the 1970s by the American psychologist Herbert Freudenberger. He defined burnout as: “The extinction of motivation or incentive, especially where one's devotion to a cause or relationship fails to produce the desired results.”

Now, being burned out is broadly used, regardless of career choice, to describe feelings of being continually overworked and stressed out at work. However, it’s especially common among jobs in which “helping” is a major component of work, such as working as a nurse, doctor, therapist, or caregiver. One study even refers to nurse burnout as a “widespread phenomenon.”

Signs and Symptoms of Burn Out

There is no “one size fits all” portrait of burn out. That said, there are three main symptoms and signs to look out for.

Alienation:

Notice someone feeling more cynical or frustrated than usual? Do you see them regularly distancing themselves from coworkers or peers? These could be signs that they’re alienating themselves as a result of burnout.

Exhausted:

Exhaustion is a huge component of burnout, which can lead to headaches, sleep problems, stomach aches, and other physical and mental issues. This can also make someone behave with more irritability and frustration as a result of feeling overly tired.

Reduced Performance:

Typically, when someone is burned out, they will lack concentration and motivation, which will often translate into a visible reduction in work performance.

Burn out can also be accompanied with feelings of being “down” and hopeless. In this sense, there’s often an overlap with compassion fatigue and depression.

Burned Out vs. Compassion Fatigue vs. Depression

Burnout, compassion fatigue, and depression can be closely related and may even have overlapping symptoms, particularly for workers in health care. However, it’s helpful to know key differences before addressing potential treatments and recovery plans.

Compassion fatigue is described on GoodTherapy.org as “stress that results from helping or wanting to help those who are traumatized or under significant emotional duress.” It’s typically associated with careers marked by stressful environments and repeated exposure to others’ suffering and a “giving” of self. In this sense, compassion fatigue is common among nurses, caregivers, and therapists.

Whereas burn out typically emerges over time, compassion fatigue can emerge suddenly. It also is generally related to the direct nature of the work rather than the stress of the workload or work environment.

On the other hand, depression is described by the American Psychiatric Association as, “a common and serious medical illness that negatively affects how you feel, the way you think and how you act.” So, while someone with burnout may experience depression, depression is often the experience of feeling low self-esteem, hopeless, and potentially suicidal about life -- not necessarily a work situation.

If you’re concerned that one of your colleagues is depressed, we highly recommend taking advantage of SAMHSA’s National Helpline (1-800-662-HELP (4357) for confidential, free, 24-hour-a-day support.

How To Help Your Team Recover From Burnout

Now that you know the meaning and symptoms of being burned out, here are some ways to help your team not only deal with burnout feelings, but also recover and potentially avoid getting burned out in the first place.

Validate Feelings:

Acknowledging your employees’ opinions, feelings, and ideas is essential to making them feel respected and valued.

Especially for health care workers, it’s critical to have someone who can empathize and understand the high-stress and emotionally draining pressure of their work. While support from managers and co-workers is hugely important, often external support is also needed, such as group or individualized therapy.

Ask Questions & Listen:

Be curious about your employees’ wellbeing. It may sound small, but regular check ins will remind your team they are supported. This is integral in all jobs, but especially jobs in which the person is caring -- physically and mentally-- for others.

In fact, a Gallup survey showed that employees who strongly agree that they feel supported by their manager are about 70 percent less likely to experience burnout on a regular basis.

Show Appreciation:

A good way to keep employees motivated? Appreciate them! A Glassdoor study showed that more than 80 percent of employees were motivated to work harder when they felt appreciated for their work. Added bonus: feeling valued is shown to boost an employee’s desire to stay with a company.

And studies show that retention is essential in the healthcare industry for not only saving money, but also providing high quality care.

Encourage Self-Care:

Rather than making your team feel badly about taking time off to care for themselves, encourage it. This may look like supporting a coworker if they want to see a therapist or providing space for them to talk out their feelings.

When your team is well-rested, healthy, and happy -- they’re far more likely to do better work and stay with a company for a longer period of time.

Other Tips To Help Your Team Avoid Burnout

Here are more tips to show your team they are being noticed and valued for their work.

Celebrate Work Milestones:

Recognizing work anniversaries is a great opportunity to foster a culture of gratitude and recognition. Plus, it’s a fun way to add a sense of lightness and joy to an environment that’s often highly stressful and intense. These celebrations benefit everyone, from the person being celebrated to the rest of the team.

Plan Work Parties:

Between monthly happy hours (zoom-style works!) and holiday gatherings, work events are fun ways to encourage community and workplace bonding. Of course, this will look different depending on your work environment but making an effort to bring your team together can lift team morale and boost happiness.

Prioritize Balance:

Respecting “time off” and holidays is hugely important to ensuring your team is coming to work re-fueled and rejuvenated. When your team member’s shift is over, it’s important to honor their off-time as much as possible.

Create a Safe Work Environment:

This is exactly what it sounds like. When your team has the supplies they need to do their jobs and protect themselves, they will be able to work with more confidence and compassion. Whether that’s providing the surgical supplies they need to do their work or offering extra hand sanitizer and wipes, these steps are critical to ensuring your team is staying safe and feeling secure in their workplace.

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