Physician burnout is a longstanding problem among hospital clinicians and as rates of burnout increase, healthcare organizations are critically evaluating the well-being of their staff.
Burnout is described by the US Department of Health and Human Services as “a syndrome characterized by emotional exhaustion that results in depersonalization and decreased personal accomplishment at work.”
An article published recently by the American Medical Association highlighted the need to better address burnout in the health sector, citing a study published in Mayo Clinical Proceedings that makes a correlation between occupational satisfaction and burnout. Symptoms of burnout range from anxiety to chronic fatigue – it is also associated with exhaustion and detachment, which make it difficult for clinicians to be effective at work.
The problem itself is far-reaching. Burnout rates in the United States fluctuate anywhere from 43 to 64 percent. Rates in the UK average around 33 percent, with slightly higher rates of 38 percent in Australia. Canada has some of the highest rates, at 50 percent.
The spike in national and international data regarding clinician burnout has led hospitals and healthcare organizations to critically evaluate how burnout is affecting their staff.
Earlier this year at Lehigh Valley Health Network, summer research scholars conducted a survey to help identify the leading causes of burnout. The project was overseen by Dr. Matthew McCambridge, Chief Quality Officer, Marjorie Hamm, Clinical Quality Specialist and Sarah Schopf, Clinical Quality Specialist.
This study was not the first time the team at Lehigh Valley has taken a critical look at staffs’ experience of burnout. Previously, a survey developed using the Maslach Burnout Inventory was conducted, with 497 of the Network’s medical clinicians responding.
The latest survey collected data from 150 clinicians to pinpoint the various lifestyles that can contribute to burnout.
“Each student has iPads and they went up to providers and asked the questions in person and recorded the data,” says Schopf, “The application is easy-to-use, it’s quick – and it’s nice that you can conduct the survey in real time.”
The survey questions covered a variety of lifestyle choices, asking questions like:
- How many hours of sleep do you get on an average night?
- Do you eat breakfast on a regular basis?
- Do you ever experience quiet time?
- Do you exercise on a regular basis?
- Do you have hobbies outside of work?
“Part marks” were given to staff who engage with these activities on an occasional basis, but not regularly. The survey, which took only a couple of minutes to complete, also asked staff about their awareness of resources in place at Lehigh Valley Health Network to help avoid staff burnout.
“Almost everyone was aware that we have resources to support them,” says McCambridge.
Beyond resource awareness, the study revealed that the percentage of physicians who self-identified as experiencing burnout symptoms was slightly lower than the national average. Some physicians said that while they didn’t identify with the definition of burnout, they had experienced some symptoms occasionally.
According to the team at Lehigh Valley, this information is a valuable component in an ongoing journey.
“We’re creating another survey and I’m planning to go around and talk to 1,000 providers this year,” says McCambridge. “We’re excited for the next steps.”
Research indicates that clinician burnout is a complicated problem to address – and there is no “right way” to approach it. An article from earlier this year in Hospitals & Health Networks sited one approach by Mission Health that involved three steps:
- Removing hassles and scaling joys;
- Increasing positive team communication, and;
- Enhancing individual resiliency
Other strategies recommend distinguishing between the types of stressors in the healthcare system, for example, dividing them into the source categories of inherent and external stress and rewards. These categorizations can help leadership hone in on the stressors they can change, while acknowledging that there are some contributing causes of burnout in healthcare that may never be fully addressed.
The first critical step to any action plan, however, is collecting data about the clinician community, how they experience burnout and the behaviors that may be contributing to it.