Clinician burnout: TeamHealth clinical leader on why it is time to break the stigma, promote dialogue and provide resources

While clinician burnout has been a problem for many years, the COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated this persistent issue.

A recent survey conducted by the American Medical Association found that 62.8 percent of physicians had at least one incidence of burnout in 2021, up almost 25 percent from 38.2 percent in 2020.

Becker’s Hospital Review recently spoke with Peter Kah, MD, a TeamHealth regional medical director, emergency medicine, and co-chair of TeamHealth’s clinician resiliency committee, about the persistent problem of clinician burnout and some of the ways organizations can respond.

Multiple factors in the healthcare environment have contributed to and compounded clinician burnout

Even before the pandemic, staffing pressures were a reality throughout all parts of the healthcare sector. This led some clinicians to leave the field, reducing the size of the talent pool. “There just isn’t the same number of people in the industry as we had before, whether it’s nurses, techs, doctors, nurse practitioners or other roles,” Dr. Kah said.

Dr. Kah also observed many medical professionals who were close to retiring prior to the pandemic have since decided to leave the field. Others have sought and often found less stressful jobs in fields they wouldn’t have previously considered. Adding to these dynamics, new people coming into healthcare increasingly understand this is a difficult field to work in.

The administrative burden facing clinicians has also contributed to burnout. Taking care of patients requires many more administrative and regulatory steps than in the past. “It can be tough to deal with the added expectation of new required documentation,” Dr. Kah said.

Although the worst days of the pandemic are behind us, the problem of burnout persists and, in some ways, it’s even worse. “During the crisis, there was the feeling that burnout was a temporary issue and that eventually staffing would get better,” Dr. Kah said. “People felt that they were fighting COVID-19 together and doing something heroic during unprecedented times. Today, the pressing medical emergency has gotten better, but our ongoing staffing situation hasn’t. In fact, at many hospitals, the situation is now a lot worse.”

It’s time to break the stigma associated with burnout

Large numbers of healthcare professionals are suffering from burnout, but even now many are reluctant to talk about it. In response, TeamHealth has implemented a portfolio of solutions and resources for employees and leaders alike.

“The first step toward addressing burnout is acknowledging that it’s a real problem and helping people understand they aren’t alone,” Dr. Kah said. “TeamHealth recently launched its ‘Break the Stigma’ campaign to let clinicians know that it’s safe to talk about burnout and mental health issues. We have assembled educational resources related to these topics and encourage leaders to use them at all meetings, especially local onsite gatherings.”

TeamHealth’s employee resource app, “Zenith,” connects employees and their families with a wide range of resources. “Burnout affects families, as well as clinicians,” Dr. Kah explained. “A big part of well-being for providers is ensuring their family is doing well too. As a result, we decided to provide support not just to our partners and providers, but to their family members as well.”

Through Zenith, counseling services can be scheduled in person, by video, by phone or through text messaging. Additional resources are available to take the pressure off of daily stresses, such as legal assistance for everyday needs, at-home care for children or other family members and financial advice. In addition, the app includes recommendations clinicians can use to cultivate better mental health, like exercising, taking time each day to engage in favorite activities or getting out into nature.

Leaders play a central role in identifying burnout and connecting clinicians with help

To reduce rates of burnout and mitigate its harms, TeamHealth is focused on educating leaders about this critical issue, including the development of a wellness committee to spearhead several important initiatives. Today, a proactive approach to addressing burnout has become an important part of the company’s culture.

“We encourage leaders at every meeting to spend time — even just a few minutes — discussing burnout,” Dr. Kah said. “We’ve created podcasts, emails with talking points for leaders and short videos with vignettes of personal experiences. The goal is to give leaders resources to make it easier to broach the topic of burnout and talk about it naturally with staff members.”

Wellness rounding has become another key element of TeamHealth’s culture. Leaders take time to ask clinicians specific questions about how they and their families are doing. In addition to team meetings and one-on-one conversations, leaders can ask clinicians to take surveys that assess burnout.

“It’s important to give people an opportunity to really talk about how they are feeling and whether they are struggling,” Dr. Kah said. “If leaders discover a team member is having problems, whatever they may be, we have resources available for them to access.”

To date, TeamHealth has received positive feedback from staff regarding its programs. “The people who have used our resources say they’ve felt really cared for,” Dr. Kah said. “I’ve also had people tell me how much they appreciate that their families can also use our resources. They feel that we are recognizing the bigger-picture issues related to burnout.”

Although progress has been made to reduce clinician burnout, more work needs to be done. “The other feedback we’ve received is not as many people are using the resources as we had hoped,” Dr. Kah said. “One concern is people may not know resources are available to help them, or they may believe accessing resources will have negative ramifications for their careers.”

TeamHealth’s top priorities are for employees to realize it’s fine to talk about burnout and that the company cares about them. “The hardest part for people is understanding that we’re all in the same boat and that accepting help is okay,” Dr. Kah said. “I think we can dispel the myth that asking for help makes you look weak.”

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