With the devastating rise of the Delta variant, we’re now seeing news reminiscent of the early days of the pandemic: Hospitals are reaching capacity, with 1 in 5 ICUs having at least 95% of their beds filled. Once again, this is dangerous territory, making it harder—in some cases, impossible—to treat the very sick with the attention and care they require. These scenarios are bound to get more dire, as the worsening conditions cause more burnout among physicians and other frontline healthcare professionals. 

The psychoanalyst Herbert Freudenberger introduced the term “burnout” in the 1970s, and it’s defined by three main characteristics:

  • Emotional exhaustion
  • Cynicism or depersonalization
  • Reduced professional efficacy and accomplishment

Burnout among physicians predates COVID-19 by a long shot. According to a 2017 study by the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality, called MEMO (Minimizing Error, Maximizing Outcomes), nearly a third of physicians believed they needed at least 50% more time to conduct physical examinations, and about 25% said they needed 50% more time for follow-up appointments. These physicians felt time-pressured at work in a way that interfered with the quality of their care. 

And as Dr. L. Samuel Wann wrote in Cardiology Today, in November 2017, “A negative attitude and unpleasant behavior related to burnout can disturb productive interpersonal relationships essential to team-based care…resulting in suboptimal patient care.” 

In many ways, the current burnout crisis is a long time in the making, with the exigencies of the pandemic exacerbating longstanding time- and resource-crunches as we all as long-festering frustration. It’s easy to see how. As Kaiser Permanente’s Dr. Commilla Sasson said, “there is some level of frustration probably of you know, well, this could have been prevented, and I think that is something a lot of folks are dealing with now.”

Social worker Zack Bodenweber told Kentucky’s Wave 3 News that “We’ve seen more workplace stress and we’ve seen the inability to manage it at the same time. The worst thing that happens is when people leave their job physically, but not mentally, and now they are at home, replaying scenarios of what happened.”

This applies not just to physicians but to all hospital staff. According to Anne Dabrow Woods, a critical care NP at the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania, “We’re starting our fourth wave of COVID-19, and nurses are tired. Staff are feeling overworked, unsafe, and undervalued.” Some staggering data bears this out—an American Nurses Foundation survey earlier this year demonstrated that 92% of nurses in the United States are considering leaving the profession. 

According to research by the Kaiser Family Foundation and the Washington Post, more than 60% of frontline healthcare workers report worsened mental health due to the pandemic, with 13% saying they needed mental health medication as a result and 18% reporting seeking out such support but being unable to obtain it. In the United States, the government has started to recognize the issue, with the Department of Health and Human Services providing $103 million to address burnout. Funds will be divided among hospitals and educational institutions to teach providers about the dangers of burnout and to augment “workforce resiliency programs.”

Of course, HCP burnout is a complicated, multifaceted issue, and it will be a long road toward easing the crisis. For life sciences leaders, the thing to recognize is this: We can’t prevent burnout—but we can cultivate empathy. During these strenuous times, what are the unique mental health struggles of each provider type in your therapeutic area? What kinds of interventions, guidance, and support could help ease the strain, make it easier for them to push through and continue caring for people in need? HCPs will remember what a brand does to support them at a time like this.  

About the Author:

Ben helps spark innovative healthcare thinking as Associate Director of Innovation. Previously on the editorial staff of Vanity Fair, he brings experience in engaging, rigorous storytelling to the healthcare world. Ben’s goals are to move brands to rethink their roles, own their evolving narratives, and maintain vital and vigorous consumer relationships.