As the COVID-19 pandemic continues, healthcare workers face unprecedented levels of stress, fear, and anxiety. Situations that trigger chronic stress have always been present within the important and weighty work of caring for patients, but routine stressors are now intensified by the serious risks of working on the frontlines of a pandemic. Together, this creates a perfect storm of heightened risk of burnout.
Accounts of non-healthcare workers experiencing burnout from the challenges of working during a pandemic, such as learning to work remotely, constant technological mediation, and navigating new family schedules, are well documented. Though the phenomenon of burnout among healthcare professionals stretches back decades, the literature and recent data for U.S. healthcare workers during the pandemic is scarce (Jha, Shah, Calderon, Soin, & Manchikani, 2020).
Burnout: definitions and warning signs
The term “burnout” emerged in the early 1980s, and is defined by psychologists as “exhaustion that workers can experience when they have low job satisfaction and feel powerless and overwhelmed at work” (Mathieu, 2012). A definition from a recent study by Dr. Sachin Jha, et al., emphasizes the root cause of burnout as long-term job stress, resulting in a “mixture of fatigue, cynicism, and exposure to inefficacy” (2020). Though often thought of as a form of primarily emotional exhaustion, the impact of burnout can go beyond mental health, manifesting in physical ailments (Figley, 1995).
Burnout among healthcare professionals specifically has long been a concern. The Bureau of Labor Statistics projects 200,000 RNs will be needed per year over the next six years. But, according to Nursing Solutions Inc., since 2015, the average hospital has turned over nearly 90 percent of its workforce—these are all pre-COVID-19 numbers (2020).