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Dousing Burnout Takes a Combination of the Human and the Digital

Healthcare institutions must make clear their seriousness about employee mental health support and overall wellbeing and take decisive actions to make things better.

The coronavirus pandemic may (or may not) be on its way to endemicity, but the healthcare-workforce burnout it exacerbated doesn’t look to be abating. Two of a multitude of statistics illustrate as much: 40% of healthcare practices reported physicians resigning or retiring early this year due to burnout, and 90% of nurses are considering leaving the profession. That’s happening amid a staffing shortage that’s racking up huge costs in overtime, agency, and traveler staff costs.

Caregiver burnout preceded the pandemic, and it is clearly surviving it, with workloads and stresses continuing apace due to ongoing coronavirus cases combined with spiking RSV and flu patients – not to mention the countless complex chronic-disease cases made worse through care delayed during the coronavirus’ ymany waves. As high rates of anxiety, depression, and suicide in the healthcare workforce demonstrate, the worrying consequences extend beyond the workplace.

All this is unfolding against a backdrop of growing demand for and rising costs of healthcare services, ingredients for a vicious cycle. Given the personal, organizational, and societal stakes, we can’t sit back and watch this healthcare-burnout emergency continue to happen. So, what’s to be done? We need proactive, creative solutions that are both people-and-process related and data-driven, though even the nontechnical approaches benefit from differing degrees of digitalization.

Nontechnical solutions

On the nontechnical side, the U.S. Agency for Health Care Research and Quality’s (AHRQ) 2017 rundown of potential burnout mitigators has aged well: reducing physician panel size, increasing flexibility for longer patient visits and cutting the number of face-to-face visits per day, boosting staffing, taking documentation requirements into account, fostering part-time work, hiring floaters to cover unexpected leave, developing standard order sets, and pushing tasks that medical assistants or other can handle from the to-do lists of physicians and nurses.

In addition, healthcare organizations such as Intermountain Healthcare and the Mayo Clinic have recognized a need for onsite mental-health support for providers. Doing so is, of course, predicated on an organizational and cultural recognition that it’s OK to need such support – not always easy in an environment where, to paraphrase the old adage, the cobbler tends to wear the worst shoes. These and other organizations are deploying combinations of spiritual-services chaplains, embedded counselors, and, increasingly, trained peer support. These peers can offer psychological triage and then refer to professional clinical social workers, psychologists, and psychiatrists if the need is there.

Digital solutions come into play in helping manage the complexity of tracking the workforce to the point that mental-health assistance can be deployed at the right time and in the right ways. They can also identify staffing adjustments that are mutually beneficial to personnel as well as the organization.

Experience-management systems collect insights from providers about stress, burnout, safety, protection, and culture, and can help steer support resources quickly. They serve as early-warning systems for incipient burnout, and without undue additional burden on caregivers. The Mayo Clinic Well-Being Index that’s integrated into some of these systems, for example, measures clinician wellbeing in less than a minute. These systems measure anecdotal and statistical inputs and turn them into action plans.

Just as importantly is creating and maintaining a provider-wellbeing portal where caregivers can access the complete list of wellness resources on their own schedules.

Care for the caregivers

More broadly, talent-management and contingent-workforce solutions – which often can plug into existing HR and payroll systems – can help with the fundamental staffing challenges stemming from intense competition for healthcare talent that can lead to burnout-inducing workloads. They enable a holistic understanding of the capabilities and competencies of the entire talent pool, manage professional development to fill in skill gaps, and provide management with the insights needed to deploy people in new ways based on their skills and competencies.

Such systems can directly benefit line supervisors. For instance, nurse managers can be responsible for more than 100 staff. Talent-management systems collect and collate information that feeds directly into performance reviews in ways that take work off the nurse manager’s plate while providing the detail needed to make reviews meaningful for staff.

Burnout is a complex problem, and we won’t be able to take care of patients if we don’t take care of caregivers. Tackling the healthcare-burnout crisis and mitigating the professional, personal, and societal damage it does takes a balance of digital and people-centered approaches. Healthcare institutions must make clear their seriousness about employee mental health support and overall wellbeing and take decisive actions to make things better. Doing so will pay dividends in improving morale, lowering attrition, making the workforce more resilient, attracting new talent, and, by becoming employers of choice, enabling services from the most motivated and talented providers in a given market for the benefit of patients.

[Editor’s Note: The article mentions the Mayo Clinic Wellbeing Index, which is used by more than 800 organizations globally. Mayo Clinic is a customer of the author’s employer — SAP — and uses the SAP Learning Management System to provide online training to its employees.] 

Photo: PeopleImages, Getty Images

Anna Nerz, is a Solution Manager for SAP’s Healthcare Industry Business Unit.

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