Male physician with head in hands experiencing physician burnout

The Impact of Physician Burnout Before COVID-19

The COVID-19 pandemic has had a detrimental impact on the work-life of physicians and nurses. Long hours, shortages of personal protective equipment, grief over loss of patients, and the constant uncertainty of what tomorrow might bring are just some of the stressors burdening the minds of America’s healthcare workers. It is important to remember that even before COVID, there was another epidemic among physicians and nurses: Burnout.
Graphic showing a representation of burnout before COVID-19.
Infographic from ‘Death by 1000 Cuts’: Medscape National Physician Burnout & Suicide Report 2021

Burnout was here first

According to the Medscape National Physician Burnout & Suicide Report 2021, 79% of physicians stated that their burnout had started before the COVID-19 pandemic. Physicians and nurses are overworked and, unfortunately, their burnout symptoms have gone mostly unacknowledged by leadership.

It is more important than ever for healthcare leaders to address the mental wellbeing of their clinicians. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, about 50% of physicians were already experiencing symptoms of burnout. Unfortunately, only 9-13% were seeking help.

Physician burnout banner graphic that reads, "Feeling burned out? Sign up for tools and resources to stop burnout."

The impact is widespread

Burnout in the individual impacts not only the individual, but those around them as well. Burnout is exquisitely portable – the person takes it and they carry it with them everywhere they go, including bringing it home to friends and family. The result can be strained relationships, divorce or alcohol and drug abuse.

In addition to leaders monitoring for and addressing burnout symptoms, colleagues of physicians and nurses need to check in on each other as well. Healthcare workers have the highest rate of suicide among all professions. Having a support system in place so that physicians and nurses know that they are seen, heard, and cared for can make the difference between healthy, adaptive behaviors and the worst of burnout’s consequences. If you think a colleague is suffering from burnout, consider reaching out and asking if they are doing alright. Many times, clinicians may shrug off the invitation to talk or share their troubles, however, the act of reaching out alone is highly impactful and that person now knows they have a caring colleague, should they change their mind to accept moral support.

Burnout’s repercussions

The consequences physician and nurse burnout are staggering not only for clinicians, but the patients receiving care as well. Physicians who are experiencing at least one major symptom of burnout were more than twice as likely to report a major medical error within the previous 3 months. These errors can range from a minor inconvenience to a dangerous and life-threatening misdiagnosis.

The ripples from burnout spread far outside of the individual physician or nurse suffering from the symptoms. There are multiple studies to validate the severity of this epidemic. We must, as a collective effort, begin to normalize the conversation around burnout. Become comfortable admitting the experience and destigmatizing the admission of suffering.

As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to spread, leaders must stay vigilant for signs of burnout. COVID-19 is not the sole cause of burnout in physicians and nurses – it was present long before and will continue if unaddressed.

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