The Great Resignation for healthcare workers is unique, and so are its solutions

The Great Resignation hit healthcare workers in a unique way, with abuse, misinformation and death and trauma on a massive scale — all affecting their ability to do their jobs safely. 

Christine Sinksy, MD, vice president of professional satisfaction for the American Medical Association, told Becker's that we may not have yet seen the full effects of the Great Resignation among healthcare workers. However, she does provide key solutions for healthcare leaders to take to support staff and help them transition into a better, healthier work environment that reduces burnout. 

The effect of the pandemic on healthcare workers cannot be underestimated, she said. 

"The frequency of death and tragedy during peaks in the COVID waves was more than most physicians had ever experienced in the past," she said. "And the number of younger people who were dying was more than most nurses and physicians and others had previously encountered in their entire professional lives."

Medical professionals who work in critical care settings can often feel a sense of compromised integrity while caring for patients in difficult conditions, such as end-of-life care, and this increases their likelihood of leaving the profession. Given the manifestations of COVID-19, many healthcare workers were exposed to these critical care situations.

"If you’ve felt that you've had to compromise your integrity in the course of caring for patients, that increases your odds by threefold of intending to leave your current position," said Dr. Sinksy.

The pandemic also introduced unique challenges for healthcare workers, according to Dr. Sinksy. 

"I believe the politicization of healthcare decisions has been particularly stressful for nurses and physicians. Certainly we hear a lot about patients and families who interact with healthcare workers in an uncivil way. And I've heard from some physicians that this decrease in the civility in our discourse has contributed to their decision to cut back their hours or to retire early."

She also explained that the cycle of trauma and recovery is a long path, too.

"We know the pattern is that the disaster hits, then there is what is called the honeymoon period where everyone comes together. Healthcare workers in the early phases of the pandemic felt supported, and were treated as heroes. But what follows the honeymoon phase is a period of disillusion, discouragement and frustration and then after this setback there can come some level of recovery."

When this recovery will end though remains to be seen. 

To combat some of the burnout, Dr. Sinsky, alongside experts from the American Hospital Association, the Institute for Healthcare Improvement and more, created a 2022 healthcare workforce rescue package, filled with action plans to alleviate some of the strain of staff. One approach included in the report titled "Getting Rid of Stupid Stuff" aims to streamline the workflow of medical professionals.

"It means reducing the number of EHR clicks for common workflows or reducing the number of inbox notifications. There's a lot of sludge in the healthcare system that is weighing physicians and others down on a daily basis. It can be so hard to get through the mundane tasks of care because what could be done in two clicks, takes 30 clicks, and when it happens over and over again, the cumulative effect can be very dispiriting."

Other recommendations for action include implementing crisis care protocols, for instance around documentation of care. This means that during times of crisis, medical professionals should be permitted to enter only the bare essentials into documentation systems to save time and strain.

A final recommendation given was to create peer support networks and install a staff member responsible for team wellbeing. By instituting a team member who has operational authority to oversee the wellbeing efforts of the system, hospitals can ensure someone is constantly thinking about how to improve the quality of experience for staff and guiding all efforts. Dr. Sinsky argues that health systems do not need to make their staff more resilient, but instead need to themselves become more resilient to be able to protect and care for their staff. 

You can read more about strategies to reduce burnout in their report.

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