The COVID-19 outbreak has placed immense pressure on frontline healthcare workers. Facing rising cases, increased workloads, and lack of preparedness and resources, physicians are at high risk of burnout. In fact, more than half of the nation’s physicians have demonstrated at least one symptom of burnout, a number that has risen dramatically in recent years. With healthcare worker burnout being associated with emotional distress, poorer patient outcomes, and high turnover, it’s vital that clinics proactively address and handle physician burnout. Here’s how.
1. Monitor and Assess Physician Stress
Don’t wait until a physician’s work starts to suffer before intervening. To avoid negative health outcomes, healthcare providers should regularly “take the temperature” of their workers’ emotional wellbeing. Both formal surveys and informal check-ins such as daily morning “stand up” sessions can help identify physicians at risk of burnout, while also pinpointing specific burnout risk factors. For those looking for helpful resources, the AMA is currently offering no-cost surveys for COVID-19 physicians and care teams.
2. Prioritize Organizational Resilience
Resilient workplaces are those that have been designed to care for physicians and healthcare workers during critical moments such as the COVID-19 outbreak. Rather than merely focusing on supporting the individual, resilient workplaces take a systemic approach that raises up the whole organization. While such approaches are ideally proactive rather than reactive, clinics can still implement key resilience steps to help reduce burnout risk across the organization. These include identifying and implementing new support methods and resources, emphasizing inclusive, empathetic leadership, and developing relationships with other organizations in order to share resources and workloads. These responses should always be nimble and adaptive and should be followed up with post-crisis analysis and reflection.
3. Rethink Clinical Workloads
High patient loads, together with the shift towards telehealth, have dramatically changed how healthcare is delivered. Clinics can take the pressure off physicians – therefore reducing the risk of burnout – by having existing or temp support staff handle tasks such as technical support, insurance claims, and admin. Adjusting shift times to account for new challenges such as physicians who are working from home or caring for children can also help reduce overwork and, therefore, burnout. Non-essential appointments or surgeries should also be delayed or canceled depending on patient load. Finally, organizations can help promote physician wellbeing by protecting sick days, paid leave, and time off.
Act to Reduce Burnout Now
Critically, burnout doesn’t just stop at one individual: it affects entire teams. If one physician on a team is burned out, so are the rest. What’s more, emergency medicine, general internal medicine, and family medicine physicians most likely to be affected, making it all the more vital that organizations act now to address COVID-19-related burnout before it affects patient outcomes and physician wellbeing. Fortunately, by following the AMA’s best practices around burnout, monitoring physicians’ emotional health, and focusing on organizational resilience, clinics can help mitigate the potential for burnout – and instead focus on successfully managing the COVID-19 epidemic.