Burnout, harassment driving mental health crisis in health care workers

(The Hill) — Health care workers are facing a serious mental health crisis.

A new report released Tuesday from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) found they are reporting harassment, burnout and symptoms of poor mental health at levels higher than before the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The number of days U.S. health care workers reported that their mental health was not good in the past 30 days increased more than other workers between 2018 and 2022, the report found.  

Health workers historically work long hours, often with unpredictable or rotating schedules. Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, health care worker burnout was at a “crisis level.” The pandemic exacerbated the problems.

“The COVID-19 pandemic only intensified many health workers long-standing challenges and contributed to new and worsening concerns including compassion fatigue, depression, anxiety, substance use disorders and suicidal thoughts,”  CDC Chief Medical Officer Debra Houry told reporters Tuesday. 

“While usually health workers care diligently for others in their time of need, it is now our nation’s health workers who are suffering and we must act,” Houry said.

The report is the first to compare self-reported well-being and working conditions for health workers from before and after the start of the pandemic. 

Overall, about 46 percent of health care workers reported feeling burnout often or very often in 2022, compared with 32 percent in 2018. Nearly half of those in the field also reported they were likely or very likely to apply for a new job — in contrast to other worker groups who reported a decrease in job turnover intention.

Harassment also spiked during the pandemic, the CDC found. More than double the number of health workers reported harassment at work in 2022 than in 2018 — 13.4 percent in 2022, up from 6.4 percent in 2018. 

Among health care workers who said they were harassed, 85 percent reported feelings of anxiety, 81 percent reported feelings of burnout and 60 percent reported feelings of depression.

But even those who didn’t report harassment experienced the same feelings. The survey found 53 percent experienced anxiety, 31 percent experienced depression, and 42 percent experienced burnout.

“To label our current and long standing challenge a crisis is an understatement,” said L. Casey Chosewood, senior author of the report and a director in CDC’s National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health.

“Many of our nation’s healthcare systems are at their breaking point … we’re calling on employers to take this information to heart and take immediate preventive actions,” Chosewood added.

Workers who said they trusted management, had supervisor help, had enough time to complete work and felt that their workplace supported productivity reported less burnout and lowered the odds of poor mental health compared with those who did not. 

The CDC report recommended employers allow health workers to participate in decision-making, building trust in management, providing supervisor assistance and enough time to complete work, preventing harassment and paying attention to harassment reports if it does happen.

After the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, employees have been demanding better working conditions. But healthcare has been late to the idea, Chosewood said, largely because employers see health workers as immune to the burnout and mental health challenges facing the workforce in general. 

“But at the end of the day, health workers are human. And they’re telling us, as we listen to their stories, that they really can’t do any more,” Chosewood said. 

The CDC’s National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) has developed a campaign to raise awareness of health workers mental health issues, and provide resources to hospital leaders and other employers of health workers to remove barriers that impede mental health care. 

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