Nurse burnout has long been a concern in healthcare, but the pandemic has put unprecedented pressure on healthcare providers and has also put a greater spotlight on the issue of burnout and, not surprisingly, the pandemic appears to have exacerbated the problem.
The term “burnout” was coined in the 70s by American psychologist, Herbert Freudenberger. He used the term to describe the consequences of high levels of stress combined with the high ideals found frequently in the “helping” professions. Today, the term burnout is more broadly used, but it is of note that the notion of burnout comes from the healthcare profession. And perhaps most telling, in 2019, the World Health Organization (WHO) added the term burnout to its International Classification of Diseases (ICD).
While nurse burnout has been described in a number of ways, there are at least three components that most experts agree are symptomatic of burnout.
In addition to the personal and professional consequences of nurse burnout, burnout can cause shrinkage in the workforce – nurses leaving the profession due to burnout in a time when there are already significant shortfalls in the number of nurses needed versus those likely to remain in or enter the field.
The COVID-19 pandemic definitely changed the reported rate of nurse burnout and as you might expect, not for the better. Unprecedented rates of hospitalization, a highly contagious and dangerous virus and a seemingly unwinnable fight caused reported rates of nurse burnout to increase internationally to 70% from a pre-pandemic rate of 40% according to a recent study by the International Council of Nurses.
The impact of nurse burnout on a nurse is heartbreaking, but just as alarming is the impact of nurse burnout on the nursing profession and the healthcare delivery system. A recent Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) article reported that of nurses who left the nursing profession altogether, 31.5% of them left because of burnout. These two findings would suggest a rather urgent need for strategies to combat burnout.
The pandemic exacerbated a problem that was already bad enough by replacing familiar practices, policies, and procedures with a series of near-constant changes. The fundamentals right down to procedures for moving patients within the hospital and allowing family members time and space to say goodbye to a loved one all changed in an instant and were replaced by policies that likely felt foreign and turned into new sources of stress for an already stressed population.
Healthcare providers and the scientific community are focusing on ways to prevent an increase in the outbreak of pandemics, but it is time to also find ways to support the physical and emotional wellbeing of nurses and other healthcare providers. Healthcare organizations need strategies to onboard and retain nurses proactively in an environment where there is an increasing likelihood of burnout.
Communication strategies that improve transparency as well as those that give nurses the opportunity to vent and share successful coping strategies are imporChecking Intant. Many organizations have also identified a new code – “Code Lavender” - that empowers colleagues to take an active role in looking out for one another and helping to intervene in situations of extreme stress and providing services for emotional care as well as quiet spaces where providers can go to decompress.
Employee-friendly measures, like increasing compensation and supporting nurse scheduling that is more conducive to work-life balance, are an important part of the effort to improve Nurse satisfaction and retain the existing nurse workforce. Nurses are more likely to stay if they feel confident in their skills and knowledge, as well as their preparation for providing care. HealthStream helps facilitate two nursing competency-related programs that support greater job satisfaction.
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