US healthcare workers more emotionally exhausted amid pandemic, study says

Emotional exhaustion among U.S. healthcare workers worsened over the course of the COVID-19 pandemic and threatens to compromise patient care, according to a Sept. 21 analysis from JAMA Network Open.

Duke University researchers analyzed more than 107,000 responses to the electronic Safety, Communication, Organizational Reliability, Physician, and Employee Burnout and Engagement survey conducted from September 2019, September 2020, and September 2021 to January 2022.

Participants included healthcare workers in clinical and non-clinical roles at 76 community hospitals within two major healthcare systems. Nursing was the most commonly reported role at 40.9 percent. Of those, 16.9 percent had worked less than one year at their workplace, 56.2 percent indicated one to 10 years, and 26.9 percent had 11 years or more.

Key findings from the report:

  • Estimated rates of emotional exhaustion rose from 31.8 percent to 40.4 percent, a proportional increase of 26.9 percent during the study period.

  • Physicians reported less emotional exhaustion from 2019 to 2020 at 31.8 percent, down to 28.3 percent, but more emotional exhaustion in 2021 at 37.8 percent. 

  • Nurses' level of emotional exhaustion rose from 40.6 percent in 2019 to 46.5 percent in 2020 and 49.2 percent in 2021 and 2022.

  • Healthcare workers in roles other than nursing showed a comparable but milder trend in emotional exhaustion.  

  • Healthcare workers in every role reported that their colleagues had higher emotional exhaustion than they experienced, reflecting previous research that indicates people tend to be unrealistically optimistic about their own health and wellbeing compared to others.

"The challenges posed by COVID-19 have been an excessive test to human well-being around the world. Few groups experienced this stress more acutely than the health care workers who persistently placed themselves in harm’s way to serve patients," researchers noted. 

Furthermore, the study calls existing programs and resources to support healthcare workers' wellbeing "woefully inadequate."

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