A coronavirus pandemic may (or may not) be on its way endemicity, but the health care workforce burnout it worsened doesn’t appear to be abating. Two of the many statistics show this: 40% of healthcare practices report that physicians resignation or early retirement this year due to burnout, and 90% of nurses are considering leaving the profession. This is happening amid staff shortages accumulation huge overtime, agency and travel staff costs.
Caregiver burnout preceded the pandemic, and is clearly experiencing it, with workloads and stress continuing apace due to ongoing coronavirus cases, coupled with a spike in RSV and flu patients – not to mention the countless complex cases of chronic illness exacerbated by care delayed during the many waves of the coronavirus. Like high rates of anxiety, depressionand suicide in the health care workforce show, the troubling implications extend beyond the workplace.
All this is taking place against a background of increasing demand and rising costs for health services, ingredients for a vicious circle. Given the personal, organizational, and societal stakes, we cannot sit by and watch this health emergency continue to unfold. So what should be done? We need proactive, creative solutions that are both people- and process-driven and data-driven, although even non-technical approaches benefit from varying degrees of digitization.
On the non-technical side, the US Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (AHRQ) 2017 depletion of potential means to mitigate burnout has aged well: reducing physician panel size, increasing flexibility for longer patient visits and reducing the number of face-to-face visits per day, increasing staffing, taking into account the requirements for documentation, encouraging part-time work, hiring floaters to cover unexpected leave, developing standard order sets, and pushing tasks that medical assistants or others can handle off the doctors’ and nurses’ to-do lists.
In addition, healthcare organizations such as Intermountain Healthcare and the Mayo Clinic have recognized the need for on-site mental health support for providers. This, of course, is based on organizational and cultural recognition that it is okay to need such support – not always easy in an environment where, to paraphrase the old adage, the cobbler tends to wear the worst shoes. These and other organizations are implementing combinations of chaplains for spiritual services, embedded counselors, and increasingly trained peer support. These peers can offer psychological triage and then refer to professional clinical social workers, psychologists and psychiatrists if needed.
Digital solutions come into play by helping to manage the complexities of tracking the workforce to the point that mental health support can be deployed at the right time and in the right ways. They can also identify personnel adjustments that are mutually beneficial to both the personnel and the organization.
Experience management systems collect information from providers about stress, burnout, safety, security and culture and can help quickly target support resources. They serve as early warning systems for incipient burnout and without unnecessary additional burden on caregivers. The Mayo Clinic Well-Being Index which is integrated into some of these systems, for example, measures the doctor’s well-being in less than a minute. These systems measure anecdotal and statistical data and turn it into action plans.
Equally important is creating and maintaining a provider wellness portal where caregivers can access the full list of wellness resources on their own schedules.
Caring for caregivers
More generally, talent management and contingent workforce solutions—which can often be plugged into existing HR and payroll systems—can help address the key staffing challenges stemming from the intense competition for healthcare talent. which can lead to burnout-inducing workloads. They enable a holistic understanding of the capabilities and competencies of the entire talent pool, manage professional development to close skills gaps, and provide management with the insights needed to deploy people in new ways based on their skills and competencies.
Such systems can directly benefit line supervisors. For example, nurse managers may be responsible for more than 100 employees. Talent management systems collect and collate information that feeds directly into performance reviews in ways that take the work out of the nurse manager, while providing the detail needed to make reviews meaningful to staff.
Burnout is a complex issue, and we won’t be able to care for patients if we don’t to take care caregivers. Addressing the health care burnout crisis and mitigating the professional, personal and societal damage it causes requires a balance between digital and people-centric approaches. Healthcare institutions need to make it clear they are serious about supporting employee mental health and overall wellbeing and take decisive action to improve things. This will pay dividends in improving morale, reducing attrition, making the workforce more resilient, attracting new talent and, by becoming employers of choice, providing services from the most motivated and talented providers in a given market for the benefit of patients.
[Editor’s Note: The article mentions the Mayo Clinic Wellbeing Index, which is used by more than 800 organizations globally. Mayo Clinic is a customer of the author’s employer — SAP — and uses the SAP Learning Management System to provide online training to its employees.]