Many US health care workers face harassment, burnout, study finds

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Health care workers are facing ever-increasing levels of harassment and burnout since the pandemic, a new federal study has found.

Reports of workplace harassment have more than doubled during the pandemic years, and nearly half of healthcare workers often feel burned out, according to survey results published Oct. 24 in a new Vital signs report from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The study is the first to detail the mental health crisis among health care workers that first developed during the pandemic, federal officials said.

“To call our current and long-standing challenge a crisis is an understatement,” said lead study author Dr. Casey Chosewood, director of the Office of Comprehensive Worker Health at the CDC’s National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH).

“Many of our nation’s health care systems are at breaking point,” Chosewood continued. “Staffing crises, lack of supportive leadership, long hours and excessive demands and inflexibility of our nation’s health care systems must be addressed. We urge employers to take this information to heart and take immediate preventative action.”

The findings come from a workplace quality survey conducted regularly by NIOSH.

More than 13 percent of healthcare workers said they had been bullied at work in 2022, compared with 6 percent in 2018 — before the pandemic hit, the survey found.

Acts of harassment include threats, harassment and verbal abuse by patients or colleagues that contribute to a hostile work environment, officials said.

“Notably, healthcare workers reported the greatest increase in workplace bullying compared to other workers,” Chosewood said. “And unfortunately, this report indicates that healthcare workers who report being bullied are more likely to report symptoms of anxiety, depression and burnout than healthcare workers who do not report being bullied.”

Some 46% of healthcare workers say they feel burnt out often or very often, with one in five (19%) saying they feel exhausted very often, the results show.

That’s an “increase of 32% in 2018,” Chosewood noted.

Healthcare workers reported an average of 4.5 days of poor mental health in the previous month in 2022, up from 3.3 days in 2018.

“Healthcare workers’ intentions to change jobs have also increased, with 44% in 2022 reporting they are likely or very likely to look for a new job in the next year,” Chosewood said. “By comparison, other groups of workers reported declining turnover intentions.”

The study also focused on what contributes to burnout.

Workers had a reduced risk of burnout if they trusted management (60% less), had a supportive supervisor (74% less), had enough time to complete work (67% less), or felt their workplace supported productivity (62% low).

On the other hand, workplace bullying increases a worker’s risk of anxiety or burnout fivefold and more than triples the risk of depression.

In response, NIOSH launched a national health care worker mental health initiative, said Dr. Debra Khoury, the CDC’s chief medical officer.

“As part of this initiative, this fall NIOSH will launch a national campaign for hospital leaders, focusing on providing resources to help them think differently about how to identify and remove barriers to healthcare worker well-being,” Khouri said.

The survey results revealed tactics hospital management can take to support workers, Khoury said.

“For example, they can allow healthcare workers to participate in decision-making about how work is done and which aspects of work need to be targeted for improvement. It builds confidence in the leadership,” Khoury said.

“Managers can provide help with work tasks and give workers enough time to complete their work,” she added.

“Healthcare workers dedicate themselves to caring for us, our families and our communities, and they pour from an empty cup,” Khoury said. “By improving working conditions and work design, we can have a positive impact on the well-being and mental health of healthcare workers and preserve a critical asset to the nation’s healthcare system and public health.”

More info:
The US Surgeon General has more on health care worker burnout.

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