From Hero to Helpless: The Reality of Healthcare Provider Burnout

From Hero to Helpless: The reality of healthcare provider burnout

We all remember the headlines during 2020 and 2021 about the “Heroes in Healthcare”. The heart-wrenching images of nurses in full PPE gear exhausted from the death and despair. Doctors and first responders were overwhelmed by the traumatic reality of the pandemic. The reality of today is some of these heroes are left feeling helpless, hopeless, and suffering from burnout. I’m Dr. Rebekah Markheim, a licensed health psychologist specializing in supporting individuals facing burnout; and one profession that suffers from severe burnout is healthcare. Burnout is a significant concern in the entire healthcare field, impacting physicians, nurses, nurse practitioners, physician assistants, EMTs, firefighters, and emergency professionals. Today, I want to delve deeper into what burnout entails, how to recognize the symptoms, and practical strategies for addressing and preventing burnout effectively.

Understanding Healthcare Provider Burnout

Let’s begin with understanding what healthcare provider burnout means. Burnout is not merely feeling stressed or tired; it’s a state of chronic stress and exhaustion resulting from prolonged exposure to unreasonable work environments, demanding patient care, and limited resources. The multiple pressures healthcare professionals face can take a toll on your mental, social, and physical well-being; and will have an impact on your personal and professional life. Add the devastating experience of a pandemic to the systemic stressors of the healthcare system and you have a crisis.

Identifying Symptoms of Burnout

Recognizing the signs of burnout is crucial for early intervention. Do you notice any of the following?

  • Emotional Exhaustion: Feeling drained, depleted, and overwhelmed. This could result in having to step away to cry, getting triggered easily or having a short fuse.
  • Depersonalization: Developing negative, callous attitudes towards patients and colleagues, leading to a sense of detachment. It could manifest as excessive irritation or agitation with daily stressors, like “snapping” at patients, colleagues, or even loved ones.
  • Reduced Sense of Personal Accomplishment: Feeling ineffective, incompetent, and lacking a sense of fulfillment or purpose in your work despite your efforts and training. A sense that no matter how much you give, that you’re not accomplishing what you went into medicine for.

Do any of these signs resonate with you? Perhaps you see these signs in a coworker/colleague? Recognizing the signs is the first step to treating, and even avoiding burnout. Let’s discuss ways to intervene when burnout occurs, remedies for recovering from burnout, and preventative measures to avoid burnout entirely.

Prioritize Self-Care

Self-care does not have to be a grand gesture of time or money. Self-care is simply being intentional about giving yourself what you need for physical, social, and emotional well-being.

  • Incorporate Stress-Reduction Techniques: Explore mindfulness practices, deep breathing exercises, or meditation to help calm the mind and reduce stress levels. Even a few minutes of mindfulness each day can make a significant difference in managing stress.
  • Engage in Physical Activity: Regular exercise not only improves physical health but also releases endorphins, the body’s natural stress reliever. Find activities you enjoy, whether it’s going for a walk, practicing yoga, or hitting the gym. If you struggle with making time to move, which most of us do, we can work on that.
  • Ensure Adequate Rest: Prioritize sleep as an essential component of self-care. Aim for seven to nine hours of quality sleep each night to allow your body and mind to recharge and rejuvenate. This may seem like a pipedream for many in the healthcare field given extended shifts and unavoidable disruption to your natural circadian rhythm. The main point is to focus on the quality of uninterrupted sleep. I help people find ways to improve their sleep.
  • Establish Boundaries and Balance:
    •  Work-Life Balance:
      • Schedule Regular Breaks: Take regular breaks throughout your workday to rest, recharge, and reset. Step away from your work environment, even if only for a few minutes, to clear your mind and replenish your energy.
      • Prioritize Time Off: Make use of your vacation days and personal time to disconnect from work and engage in activities that bring you joy and relaxation. Taking time away from work is essential for recharging and preventing burnout.
    • Practice Saying No: Learn to assertively decline additional responsibilities or requests that exceed your capacity. Saying no when necessary helps protect your time and energy for tasks that are essential and meaningful.

Seek Support

Connect with Colleagues: Cultivate a supportive network of colleagues with whom you can share experiences, challenges, and strategies for coping with stress. Building relationships with peers who understand your professional context can provide validation and mutual support.

  • Consult with Mentors: Seek guidance and advice from experienced mentors who have navigated similar challenges in their careers. Mentors can offer valuable insights, perspective, and encouragement to help you navigate difficult situations and maintain resilience.

Advocate for Resources:

  • Communicate Needs to Leadership: Advocate for adequate staffing, resources, and support systems within your healthcare organization. Communicate openly with leadership about the challenges you face and the resources you need to perform your job effectively and sustainably.
  • Participate in Workplace Initiatives: Get involved in workplace initiatives aimed at promoting employee well-being and addressing burnout. Advocate for the implementation of wellness programs, peer support groups, or resilience training to support the mental health of healthcare professionals.

Foster Work-Life Balance:

  • Schedule Regular Breaks: Take regular breaks throughout your workday to rest, recharge, and reset. Step away from your work environment, even if only for a few minutes, to clear your mind and replenish your energy.
  • Prioritize Time Off: Make use of your vacation days and personal time to disconnect from work and engage in activities that bring you joy and relaxation. Taking time away from work is essential for recharging and preventing burnout.

Help Is Available

Navigating burnout as a healthcare professional can be challenging, but it’s essential to prioritize your well-being. By recognizing the symptoms of burnout early on and implementing proactive strategies to address and prevent it, you can maintain your resilience and continue providing high-quality care to your patients. If you’re feeling overwhelmed or experiencing burnout symptoms, know that help is available. Reach out to me or other mental health professionals for support and guidance on your journey towards healing and resilience. Together, we can navigate burnout and cultivate a healthier, more fulfilling professional life. If you would like to schedule a brief initial consultation with me, please visit my website: Contact Dr. Rebekah Markheim, Psy.D., she/her (drrebekah.com)

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