Article Archive
March/April 2022

Practice Matters: Managing Health Care Burnout and Supporting Employees
By Ayme Zemke
Today’s Geriatric Medicine
Vol. 15 No. 2 P. 6

Burnout is increasing nationwide, especially for health care workers, as shortages of nurses, hospital staff, and other health care personnel emerge due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Not surprisingly, research has found that 55% of front-line health care workers have reported mental and physical exhaustion.

Organizations that recognize the signs of employee burnout early will be more successful in supporting their employees with the tools and resources needed to help.

Signs of burnout among employees include the following:

• difficulty concentrating;
• lack of satisfaction;
• dreading or avoiding work;
• mental and physical exhaustion; and
• negativity and irritability in the workplace.

Health care organizations can support employees experiencing burnout by investing in a positive workplace culture, communicating often and authentically, and prioritizing well-being.

Invest in a Positive Workplace Culture
Workplace culture is the concept of how employees view and experience their work environments. It plays a significant role in how employees interact with their colleagues and patients. Associating workplace culture with company policies, employee hierarchy, and communication among teams is a good starting place. However, following the COVID-19 pandemic, workplace culture has taken on new meaning. Employees in all industries, including health care, are reevaluating their work-life balance and learning how to fit work into their lives, rather than the reverse. Workplace culture today also must encompass and prioritize employee connections, creative thinking, and wellness.

Health care organizations that invest in a positive workplace culture are more likely to have engaged and resilient employees who are less susceptible to burnout. According to the Society for Human Resource Management, “A strong culture can bring benefits such as enhanced trust and cooperation, fewer disagreements, and more efficient decision making.” By establishing a workplace culture that emphasizes aligned core values and creates human-oriented policies, health care organizations will cultivate a workplace culture that employees will advocate for—not run from.

Workload is a large contributor to burnout in health professionals. Health care organizations that recognize workplace culture is largely influenced by employee expectations and workload can manage burnout before it occurs. Employers of all kinds must acknowledge that overworking employees may fill a short-term need, but in the long run, this practice does more harm than good.

Health care organizations that are looking to strengthen their workplace culture have many options that can be customized to represent their unique organizations. The following tools and approaches can help establish a strong workplace culture:

• employee pulse surveys;
• mobile communication apps;
• collaborative settings;
• wellness initiatives; and
• recruitment and retention metrics.

These initiatives and tactics all contribute to helping health care employees feel more supported by leadership; connected to their work, colleagues, and patients; and physically, mentally, and emotionally strong, which can collectively improve culture and avoid burnout.

Communicate Often and Authentically
A lack of communication during times of high stress and organizational change also contributes to employee burnout. Change fatigue is even more common today as the COVID-19 pandemic situation evolves rapidly. Communication between leaders and employees is especially vital to managing burnout in health care settings. Health care organizations that communicate truthfully, authentically, and in a timely manner will earn the trust of employees more frequently than will those who do not and are likely to manage and prevent further burnout from occurring.

It’s more important than ever to leverage specific communication channels and platforms to ensure organizations reach all health care workers throughout the evolution of the pandemic. There are several types of online and offline communication channels, and each serves a different purpose.
Implementing too many communication platforms can lead to confusion and compound burnout. Depending on a health professional’s role and location, traditional channels such as printed flyers, telephone calls, or in-person meetings may be more suitable. However, for employees who work remotely or tend to work in an office space, two-way, digital channels can be successful in managing burnout. Digital channels consist of the following:

• intranet;
• e-mail;
• instant messaging (Slack, Yammer);
• collaboration tools (SharePoint, Google Drive);
• video conference (Zoom, Teams); and
• surveys.

Digital and traditional channels allow health care organizations to facilitate communication between team members—as well as leader communication to employees about news, events, and policies—at a fast and frequent pace. Regularly communicating, especially during change, ensures employees feel prioritized, valued, and encouraged. Health care organizations that select communication channels based on employee needs will have an easier time managing employee burnout. Fast Company suggests that receiving feedback on channels, determining the purpose of each, and building a strategy for these channels will be most effective in employee engagement.

Health care organizations that use communication channels strategically and personally will support employees experiencing burnout and mitigate further burnout. According to a Harvard Business Review article, “The simple act of communicating in and of itself can relieve ambiguity and anxiety.” Health professionals who receive empathetic communication and responses from their organizations are likely to feel more connected and valued at their places of work. Communicating with sincerity and understanding builds trust and increases employee engagement. Forms of empathetic communication can be listening, recognizing emotions, asking questions, sharing personal anecdotes, or offering help.

Prioritize Employee Well-Being
Burnout affects more than just the workplace environment. Health professionals can develop or experience more significant signs of mental illness due to an overdemanding workplace. Mental illnesses such as depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, and substance abuse can occur if burnout is left untreated. Health care organizations that prioritize employee well-being can help minimize and manage burnout through incentives (prizes or financial benefits), providing health resources, and creating people-centered policies.

Many organizations have implemented company wellness programs unique to their organizations. Some offer a wellness budget for employees for wellness-related purchases, and others may reward employees with prizes for committing to a wellness goal. Health care organizations should recognize that wellness programs must focus on comprehensive health to be successful. According to the website of the Society for Human Resource Management, “Wellness programs focused only on physical health don’t produce better health outcomes or reduce spending over the long term … a focus on five elements of well-being—career, social, financial, physical and community—allows people to thrive.” Health care organizations that emphasize the importance of all kinds of employee health will help alleviate burnout. Whichever route an organization chooses to follow, health professionals can avoid work exhaustion with wellness programs at work.

Providing resources to improve health professional well-being and resilience is an additional way to manage burnout. Proper health coverage is one obvious necessity; however, health resources expand beyond insurance. Resources can consist of, but are not limited to, the following:

• therapist recommendations;
• daily wellness habits and practices;
• webinars and courses for all levels of health;
• list of books, films, or podcasts that summarize healthy habits; and
• nutrition and hydration guides.

Encouraging employees to deepen their understanding of, and participate in, certain wellness initiatives shows genuine care for their well-being, which is another way of preventing burnout and strengthening trust.

While wellness programs and resources are important to managing burnout, company policies that support health professionals are also important to address. Health care organizations can evaluate their policies surrounding flexible schedules, paid time off, dialogue between managers and employees, and break times. According to Forbes, “Addressing burnout needs to be built into standard operating procedures over the long haul for this reason. By taking proactive steps, burnout can be widely mitigated or eliminated in many individuals.” Any policies that make employees feel valued as humans and support mental health can help mitigate further burnout.

Burnout is challenging, but health care organizations can develop a comprehensive strategy to ensure employees experiencing burnout feel supported and can prevent further burnout. Maintaining a positive workplace culture, communicating often and authentically, and prioritizing employee well-being are all ways health care organizations can encourage employee engagement and build trust.

— Ayme Zemke, executive vice president of client service, leads client partnerships at Beehive Strategic Communication, a purpose-driven strategic communication firm specializing in integrated communication and other services. Zemke is a certified crisis-communication leader and has more than 20 years of strategic communication experience.