Back Mental Health and Physician Burnout During COVID-19

Mental Health and Physician Burnout During COVID-19

By Melissa Wirkus Hagstrom, contributor

Workplace stress, fatigue and burnout are common themes in modern healthcare—particularly for practicing physicians. Burnout has been a growing concern for years, and the current pandemic is causing even higher levels of physician burnout during COVID-19.

With the increased pressures of the pandemic—including more critically-ill patients, longer working hours, social isolation, PPE shortages, medical colleagues getting sick, and other factors—it is no wonder that burnout is affecting the mental health of our country’s physicians and other healthcare professionals. 

Even before the pandemic, the American Medical Association (AMA) reported that more than 40 percent of physicians were experiencing at least one sign of burnout. 

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Mental health and physicians: The need for understanding and action

A Review on Strategies to Manage Physician Burnout,” published in June 2019 on the Cureus journal platform, states that “the three domains (of burnout) are emotional exhaustion, depersonalization, and a sense of reduced accomplishment among physicians.”

The Maslach Burnout Inventory (MBI) is the gold standard questionnaire used to scale physician burnout. The AMA is also offering two no-cost surveys to help healthcare organizations and leaders monitor the impact COVID-19 has on their workforce during the pandemic.

According to the review,Some contributing factors leading to burnout are poor working conditions with long work shifts, stressful on-call duties, lack of appreciation, and poor social interactions. Burnout can lead to adverse consequences, such as depression, substance use, and suicidal ideation in physicians and residents.” 

The authors go on to explain that physician burnout can result in “poor patient care increasing total length of stay, re-admissions, and major medical errors.” Such mistakes increase healthcare costs, and can lead to increased lawsuits, providing even more reasons to recognize and address burnout. 

The contributing factors to burnout have been exacerbated tenfold during COVID, representing a call to arms. Once burnout has been identified, it’s time to take action and address the problem. 

Physician burnout during COVID-19: Solutions and resources 

The AMA has developed new physician burnout resources and open-access modules, which were released this summer. They give insight and tips on caring for a doctor's well-being and preventing burnout during COVID and beyond.

“Just as we are able to flatten the COVID-19 infection curve through proactive use of masks, hand-hygiene and social distancing, it is necessary to take steps to protect against the drivers of workplace stress to reduce psychological injury involving health professionals,” said AMA President Susan R. Bailey, M.D. in an August press release. “The new AMA modules provide a pathway to rapidly reconfigure priorities around physician well-being and meet the biggest new drivers of stress in a crisis setting.”

The modules include topics such as “ Caring for the Health Care Workforce During Crisis,” “ Peer Support Programs for Physicians,” and other timely themes.

In addition to the modules, the AMA’s other strategies and resources are aimed at helping physicians manage their own mental well-being while also caring for patients during the pandemic or any other crisis. 

More emphasis on self-care

Focusing on self-care and stress reduction is vital to help a physician battle burnout, though the solutions may come in different forms depending on an individual’s personality type and stress level. Connecting with both peers and non-healthcare professionals can help to lower stress. Whether through a virtual Zoom call or a socially-distanced outdoor lunch date with friends, the key is connecting with others and feeling a sense of community and belonging--something we’ve all been missing during the pandemic.

A good meal can also do wonders for the mind and body. Many restaurants have been offering free or reduced price meals to healthcare workers, so check out the offerings in your area.

Need a tool to keep with you? For physicians and healthcare professionals on the front lines, Headspace, a mental health and well-being app, is offering its premium service for free. The exercises are easy to follow and can be done on a shift break or before bed time. 

Whatever happens, don’t ignore the warning signs if you start to feel overwhelmed, or recognize the symptoms of burnout. If you or a physician you know is experiencing more significant anxiety and stress, it may help to talk with a specialist and engage in cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) or other therapies.

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