ROCHESTER, N.Y. (WROC) — As the COVID pandemic rages on many Americans are tired and feeling burned out.
Dr. Dominick DeFelice of Highland Family Medicine discussed what causes burnout, how it affects us, the impact on the health care industry, and — perhaps most importantly — what to do if you are burned out Tuesday during News 8 at Sunrise.
We are talking about burnout and personal wellness. There’s been no shortage of discussion about burnout recently, what exactly is burnout? How does it affect people?
Yes, it is certainly a well-recognized and important issue, more so at the forefront during the COVID pandemic. Burnout is described as physical or mental exhaustion caused by overwork and stress. Burnout leads to higher rates of fatigue, anxiety, depression, and substance abuse. People who are burnt out have issues with sleep and maintaining healthy lifestyles in terms of diet, exercise, and personal wellness. It is well-documented that we’ve been seeing increasing rates of health worker burnout during the pandemic.
Just how many health care workers are burnt out? Who is at the highest risk?
There was a paper in the spring of 2021 that looked at these exact questions. The authors looked at about 20,000 healthcare workers in all fields which included physicians, nurses, pharmacists, physical therapists, nurse practitioners, and others. Their main finding was that 49% of all these people met the criteria for burnout. Those most affected were social workers, nursing assistants, and medical assistants. The authors also found that racial minorities suffered more than whites. I would estimate since we are more than 6 months removed from these results, the rates of burnout are even higher.
What are the implications of this, especially when health care workers are needed now more than ever?
I think this is what really worries people the most. I’ll say first that it’s in our nature as individuals to protect ourselves from harm. If a person is feeling unwell, stressed, or anxious, they have a tendency to avoid whatever situation is causing that. People have been leaving health care, either switching fields or retiring early. Why would someone work a highly stressful job as a medical assistant for 10 dollars an hour when they could make the same in a fast-food restaurant?
This exodus makes it even harder for the people who are left behind. It also creates longer wait times for medical appointments or procedures. It takes longer to run lab tests or schedule imaging tests. People are lacking home-based care such as aide services. Nursing homes are unable to take more clients. People who need care are having it delayed, ultimately resulting in undue harm.
Secondly, it highlights the need for a more unified, national approach to health care reform and allocation of resources. Locally and nationally we need a larger investment in medical education, health care institutions, job wages, and benefits. These initiatives have been talked about since well before COVID, but it doesn’t take much looking around to notice that we are operating under unsustainable circumstances.
If an individual is burned out, what can be done?
I’ll say first that any medical condition that has come from a state of burnout, such as depression or substance use, needs to be treated by a trained professional. Burnout devoid of those sorts of issues still requires an intervention. There are many possible avenues depending on what the individual needs and is most comfortable engaging in. For some that may be behavioral health counseling, for others simply doing their best to eat healthily, exercise regularly, and get adequate sleep. For others, it is mindfulness and meditation.
I will put in a brief plug for mindfulness. Mindfulness is also a hot-button issue right now but I believe it’s misunderstood. Mindfulness at its core means focusing on the moment. When you’re eating, you’re eating, when you’re working, you’re working. When you’re resting, you’re resting. Take a moment here and there throughout the day to focus on your thoughts, your breathing, and your emotions. Multi-tasking and rushing and jumping from one task to the next are all the enemies of mindfulness. There are many apps to help people be mindful and I certainly do recommend them, not just for health care workers.