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Frontline Burnout in Healthcare: A Growing Crisis Demands Action

Implementing diverse and sustained strategies to empower frontline workers should be the cornerstone of any modern healthcare workforce management program.

The healthcare industry faces a critical challenge: rampant burnout among its workforce. Recent data paints a concerning picture: 46% of healthcare workers report feeling burned out (CDC), and 41% of nurses in direct patient care roles are considering leaving their roles (McKinsey). These numbers – significantly higher than pre-pandemic levels – point towards systemic issues demanding immediate attention.

Beyond inadequate compensation, numerous factors contribute to burnout and turnover, including low engagement, understaffing, and limited support. This culminated in a wave of strikes in 2023, with over 25 major actions at institutions like Kaiser Permanente and HCA. Kaiser Permanente’s nurse walkout was historic in scale and media attention, and likely portends walkouts at additional US health systems. Compensation, while important, was only one of the workers’ demands.  To stabilize their workforces and ensure quality care, health systems must go beyond simply increasing compensation – they need multifaceted strategies:

  • Investing in leadership: Empowering frontline leaders to effectively manage and connect with their teams is crucial. Reducing administrative burdens allows them to prioritize individual interactions and foster engagement.
  • Elevating employee voice: Creating avenues for feedback and acting upon it demonstrates value for employees and helps address concerns before they escalate. Leaders should encourage regular one-on-one interactions, solicit feedback, and actively address issues raised.
  • Investing in team members: Feeling undervalued is a significant contributor to burnout. Comprehensive strategies are needed: offering professional development opportunities, acknowledging achievements, and providing mental health support, especially for those who faced immense strain during the pandemic.

Empowering frontline leaders: Enabling meaningful engagement

One of the most impactful actions health systems can take is empowering frontline leaders. Reducing administrative burdens through automation and prioritization frees them to connect authentically with their teams. This is especially critical for those promoted during the pandemic who may lack formal leadership training. By embracing a few key leader best practices, they can foster positive team experiences and engagement.

Elevating employee voice: Listening and taking action

Efforts to elevate employee voice are often undervalued but can significantly impact satisfaction. Collecting regular feedback through a variety of channels is crucial. Leaders must not only listen but also act upon the feedback to address dissatisfaction and mitigate burnout proactively. Frontline leaders play a pivotal role in this process by conducting regular one-on-one interactions and actively soliciting diverse viewpoints. Simple strategies like unit-level suggestion boxes and pre-meeting topic suggestions can build trust and foster an environment where employees feel heard.

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Investing in team members: Making work more than just a paycheck

Investing holistically in team members is essential to reducing burnout and boosting engagement. A recent McKinsey report highlights feeling undervalued as a key cause of potential nursing turnover. Meaningful investments are crucial:

  • Professional development: Offering career advancement opportunities, such as through clinical ladder programs or leadership development, demonstrates a commitment to employee growth.
  • Celebrating success: Recognizing achievements and milestones fosters a culture of appreciation and strengthens engagement; recognition is the most underutilized management lever.
  • Mental health support: Providing accessible mental health support, especially for those who faced the pandemic’s heightened pressures, is critical to preventing burnout and promoting well-being.

Investing in our healthcare workforce: A shared responsibility

Enabling high-quality and impactful patient care requires a healthy and engaged healthcare workforce. Addressing the major causes of burnout, especially in the post-pandemic era, necessitates immediate and dedicated action from both health system leaders and frontline managers. Implementing diverse and sustained strategies to empower frontline leaders, elevate employee voice, and invest holistically in team members should be the cornerstone of any modern healthcare workforce management program. By prioritizing the well-being of our healthcare workers, we ultimately invest in ourselves and ensure a robust healthcare system for all.

Photo: gpointstudio, Getty Images

Russ Richmond, MD is a physician entrepreneur with experience building digital health companies such as Laudio, Advanced Practice Strategies (APS), Objective Health, Verisk Health, and D2Hawkeye, as well as counseling large payers and health systems while with McKinsey & Company. He is currently the co-founder and CEO of Laudio, a software company founded in 2018 to amplify frontline managers and leaders in health systems. Russ is also currently Executive Chairman of Validic, which is the de-facto standard for device and sensor data in healthcare and he also serves on the Mass General Brigham AI Fund investment committee. Russ completed his internship in Internal Medicine and Pediatrics at the University of Michigan, and earned his MD from the University of Cincinnati, and a BS in Biology from the University of Michigan. He lives in Newton, MA with his wife and three children.

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