Have you ever caught yourself thinking that doctors and nurses don’t get sick like their patients? Well, you would not be the only one with the assumption that physicians and nurses should know about health risks and therefore get less sick. Although there may be some truth to it, healthcare professionals are not magically protected from stress and illnesses. Sometimes, they face even higher health risks than people who do not work in the medical field. An example of this is the risk of experiencing a burnout during a worldwide pandemic.
What is Burnout?
Burnout is a state of psychological, emotional and physical stress that comes from chronic stressors and anxiety, often related to one’s occupational domain. If you are experiencing the following three aspects, you are most likely suffering from a burnout:
- Feeling emotionally exhausted
You have no energy. You feel trapped, helpless and defeated. You don’t have any motivation to fulfil the basic requirements of your job, or of your personal life.
You feel detached, and alone in the world. Nothing can make you feel better. You have trouble focusing and concentrating.
- Having a sense of low personal accomplishment
You feel like a failure, and you have a constant sense of self-doubt. You are increasingly unhappy with your work and feel like you can’t accomplish anything. You feel worthless.
Burnout is difficult because it slowly creeps up in your daily life, unnoticed. Until it’s too late. A good example for that is the recent COVID-19 pandemic. Slowly but surely, it’s impact on mental health becomes visible. In light of a sudden worldwide pandemic, healthcare professionals were required to adapt immediately, and endlessly work overtime. Research has shown that workers in highly stressful occupational environments are at higher risk of developing a burnout, such as healthcare workers during the pandemic.
Impact of the COVID-19 Pandemic
In a recent study on the prevalence of stress and burnout among US healthcare workers during the COVID-19 pandemic, 49% of the 20,947 healthcare workers reported suffering from a burnout. Burnout was less prevalent when workers felt valued and supported by their organization, however, the amount of healthcare professionals experiencing burnout symptoms is shockingly high.
Apparently, there is occupational variation in burnout among medical staff. A study by Grace and Van Heuvelen (2019) has found e.g. physicians and nurse practitioners to experience more burnout than healthcare workers of lower status, such as registered nurses and respiratory therapists. The higher status is accompanied by more heavy work pressure, irregular work hours and more work-life conflict. In addition, medical staff dealing with critically ill patients is especially vulnerable to developing a burnout.
Why are Healthcare Professionals at Risk for Burnout?
Healthcare professionals work within a highly stressful environment and they are required to react physically and emotionally to each and every patient. This drains their emotional capacities, leaving them feeling emotionally exhausted and depersonalized. Being vulnerable to emotional exhaustion is more common in individuals who tend to engage in avoidant decision making. To process the high pressure and workload, people distance themselves emotionally and cognitively from their work. As medical staff is required to emotionally attend to all their patients, they are at higher risk for emotional exhaustion and therefore burnout. This can also reflect on their quality of work, which is why it is of great importance for healthcare professionals to be aware of their own mental health.
Feeling ‘burnt out’ during a pandemic seems to be more prevalent among young and single healthcare workers, than among older, more experienced and married ones. This implies, among others, the following protective factors:
- Strong Social Support
A partner or family can help sustain a sense of personal accomplishment and thereby buffer the risk of burnout.
- Emotion Management
Similarly, managing one’s emotions carefully is helpful in preventing burnout. For example, monitoring emotional reactions to patients regularly or talking to colleagues about emotional experiences can help identify subliminal reactions to stress at an early stage. Extensive work experience can help with successful emotion management, thereby lowering the risk of feeling ‘burnt out’.
Overall, healthcare professionals have been pushed to their limits ever since the COVID-19 pandemic started. They continue to struggle with the high amount of stress they have to face at work, every day. Since all healthcare professionals are working as hard as ever to help others feel better, their own mental health situation can easily be forgotten. Burnout is a serious problem among medical staff and should not be overseen.
If you’re seeking some professional help to help you deal with burnout, book an appointment here!
Ronja Sina is an intern at Willingness. She graduated with her MSc in Work, Organizational and Personnel Psychology from the University of Groningen.
Elghazally, S. A., Alkarn, A. F., Elkhayat, H., Ibrahim, A. K., & Elkhayat, M. R. (2021). Burnout Impact of COVID-19 Pandemic on Health-Care Professionals at Assiut University Hospitals, 2020. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health. 18(10).
Grace, M. K., & VanHeuvelen, J. S. (2019). Occupational variation in burnout among medical staff: Evidence for the stress of higher status. Social Science & Medicine, 232, 199-208.
Prasad K., McLoughlin C., Stillman M., Poplau S., Goelz E., Taylor S., Nankivil N., Brown R., Linzer M., Cappelucci K., Barbouche M., Sinsky C.A. (2021). Prevalence and correlates of stress and burnout among U.S. healthcare workers during the COVID-19 pandemic: A national cross-sectional survey study. EClinicalMedicine. May 16 (35).