For many in the medical professions, chronic stress and fatigue may seem like “just part of the job”, but the consequences of provider burnout and failure to address serious workplace issues can be immense.
High levels of stress, lack of work-life balance and dysfunctional workplace environments have been shown to cause burnout in helping professionals. For the individual provider, this may mean higher rates of depression, anxiety, and even physical health issues, like heart disease, stroke, obesity, and vulnerability to illness.
But, if that isn’t enough to convince you that provider burnout is a serious problem, then maybe the impact on patients is.
Here are four ways that provider burnout can harm patients:
1. Impaired Functioning and Decision Making
Imagine you have been in an accident and need emergency surgery. You get to the hospital and you are given the choice between two surgical teams, both with equal levels of training.You are told that one team has several members who are suffering from burnout and showing some of the symptoms above, but the other team does not.
Which do you choose?
Most likely you’re going to choose the team that is not burnt out.
Why? Probably, because you’re afraid that the team who is experiencing burnout will miss something or make a mistake. And, that fear is valid. Research has shown that when medical providers are burnt out, they are less able to make quick decisions that could save your life.
Burnout amongst nurses has been linked to increases in hospital-related infections. In fact, according to an article by American Sentinel University, “researchers estimate that if nurse burnout rates could be reduced to 10 percent from an average of 30 percent, Pennsylvania hospitals could prevent an estimated 4,160 infections annually”.
2. Depersonalization and Reduced Empathy
When a medical provider is stressed, depressed, or anxious, their interactions with people around them, including their patients, change. They may have trouble focusing, a more difficult time listening to others, or be less able to empathize with their patients.
Physicians who have experienced burnout report that it caused their interactions with patients to become depersonalized. They were less able to show empathy, communicate effectively, build therapeutic alliances and engage with patients in general. If patients do not feel that they are able to trust or connect with their provider, they may decide not to share critical health details or report new symptoms or pain.
Not only do patients report lower satisfaction after dealing with burnout providers, but the provider stress is also reflected in their health outcomes. One study even showed that patients who saw physicians who did not provide empathetic responses had slower recovery times from the common cold.
3. Longer Patient Recovery Time
Speaking of recovery time, there is evidence that burnout amongst healthcare providers actually leads to longer recovery times for patients. In a study of 178 patients and doctors, those who were treated by doctors who were showing signs of burnout had longer post discharge recovery times even after controlling for the severity of illness. While the study does not give a specific explanation for the connection, it is likely linked to the factors listed above.
4. High Turnover
Finally, burnout impacts how long providers stay in their positions and in the medical field at all. Researchers have found that burnout is a key indicator for turnover in medical settings. Those who are experiencing burnout are more likely to report high levels of job dissatisfaction and are more likely to change workplaces or careers. This has a direct impact on health care settings’ ability to maintain necessary staffing levels.
Staffing shortages and lack of sufficiently qualified doctors, nurses and support staff have a negative impact on patient outcomes and increase mortality. When providers are constantly leaving the workplace, those who replace them are likely to be less experienced and will need to adapt to new work environments and protocols.
While the consequences of burnout on medical providers may be clear, we can’t avoid the impact that this stress has on the quality of care for patients. Organizations must take on a leadership role in ensuring the emotional and mental health wellbeing of their staff if they want to deliver the best possible care.
Providers must understand that their wellbeing not only impacts themselves, but their patients as well. Consistent self-care practices for physical, emotional, mental, social and spiritual health will make you feel better and improve their ability to practice medicine.