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Preventing Healthcare Worker Burnout

nurse burnout, physician burnout, healthcare burnout

One of the reasons why someone may choose healthcare as a career is his or her desire to help people. Although working in the medical field can be gratifying, it can also present some challenges unique to caregiving. Whether you work as a physician, nurse, or allied healthcare professional, the job can become stressful at times. But what starts as stress can turn into something worse.

Healthcare worker burnout is a result of frustration and fatigue due to the demands of the job. It can also cause feelings of detachment from patients and emotional exhaustion. Although job burnout can occur in any field, healthcare workers are particularly at risk.

Why Healthcare Worker Burnout Occurs

It may be a combination of factors that leads some people who work in healthcare to become “burned out.” One of the main causes of burnout is the repeated stress involved in caring for the sick and injured. Taking care of patients can be draining. Physicians and other staff may have to deal with life and death situations on a daily basis, which is stressful for anyone.

In addition, it can be a challenge to cope with all the difficult situations healthcare workers see. Witnessing human suffering and tragedy can wear on a person emotionally. Combine stress with long hours (and in some cases around the clock work), and the stage is set for burnout.

Healthcare professionals in any area of medicine may develop burnout, but those who take care of the sickest patients may be the most at risk.  Because of the nature of the patients they deal with, it is not surprising that critical care workers often suffer from burnout. According to a study published in the American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine, one-third of critical care nurses reported symptoms of burnout.

Coping with Burnout

One critical factor in dealing with healthcare worker burnout is for both employees and management to recognize signs and symptoms of the problem. Signs and symptoms of burnout may include a decrease in efficiency and productivity. Some workers may have a loss of compassion and empathy for their patients. Low morale and increased absenteeism may also occur. Physical symptoms, such as an increase in headaches or digestive problems, may also develop.

Admitting there is a problem is also crucial. Healthcare workers are used to taking care of others. It can be difficult to acknowledge you have a problem and are experiencing burnout. But without admitting there is a problem, you are unlikely to make the changes you need.

Prevention is Key

Preventing healthcare worker burnout before it develops is optional. Both hospital management and healthcare workers need to take a role in coping with and preventing burnout. For example, healthcare workers must learn to find a balance between work and outside interests.

Working in the medical field can deplete your physical and emotional energy. It is essential to find ways to re-energize. Whether you spend time pursuing a hobby, doing volunteer work, or vacationing, time off is critical. It is also important to know your limits. Taking more work than you can handle or working a great amount of overtime is setting yourself up for burnout in the future.

Hospitals administrators can also support their employees and provide services, which may help workers deal with burnout or prevent it from developing. For instance, debriefings after critical events, such as mass casualty incidents, allow workers to express and cope with their emotions. Access to employee assistance programs and may also help staff cope with stress on the job before it becomes burnout.


American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine. “Burnout Syndrome in Critical Care Nursing Staff. Accessed December 2014.

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About MaryAnn DePietro

MaryAnn DePietro has been a health and medical writer for over a decade. Her work has appeared in newspapers, magazines and health websites. MaryAnn holds a degree in rehabilitation and also in respiratory therapy. In addition to writing, she works as a respiratory therapist at a trauma center in northern California.

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