Burnout syndrome threatens patient safety and quality of care – and that’s a huge risk for healthcare organizations. While “burnout” has long been an epidemic in healthcare, vague definitions and protocols around staff burnout have made it hard for the industry to align and address the issue.

Previously described as a “state of exhaustion,” the World Health Organization (WHO) recently updated its definition of burnout to a syndrome that stems from chronic workplace stress that hasn’t been successfully managed and creates exhaustion, a lack of engagement, and reduced professional efficacy.

It’s more than just “being tired”
Burnout doubles the odds of a physician being involved in patient safety incidents and makes them twice as likely to commit a medical error. Staff members experiencing burnout are less likely to be friendly, able to hide their frustration with patients, or motivated to take careful patient notes.

It’s also a huge cost to the business. Some estimates put the impact of nurse burnout at $14 billion annually for the healthcare system due to high turnover, error rates, and low patient satisfaction.

Easy ways to create a healthier, happier workplace
 More than half (56%) of healthcare professionals say their organizations are either slightly or highly ineffective at helping staff handle their workplace stress. Another 40% rate their organization as only slightly effective at dealing with burnout. With just 5% of respondents saying their organization is highly effective, burnout is clearly a critical issue for virtually every healthcare organization.

Even relatively simple culture-based and operational changes can make a big difference in helping clinicians avoid burnout – which ultimately will improve outcomes for patients. Here are six to consider:

  1. Ensure proper staffing levels. Physicians and nurses across all medical disciplines are consistently understaffed, yet regularly take on more patients. Keeping staffing levels low might seem like a money saver, but this approach leads directly to burnout, which costs the organization more in the long run. Reducing clinician workload not only ensures ample capacity, it tends to be cheaper than the cost of turnover. 
  2. Actively listen and build rapport. Nurses are integral to effective diagnostics. They regularly interact with the patient, monitor their symptoms, and are the first to witness status changes. Showing appreciation for the work they do and taking a personal interest in them as individuals might seem simple, but it goes a long way. Employees are happier when they feel valued, heard, and part of the team. 
  3. Conduct annual reviews. Proactively solicit staff feedback on how the organization can improve culture, employee experience, work/life balance, and more. Annual reviews give staff members a space where they can talk openly about what’s working and what’s not. 
  4. Give more responsibility over time. Nurse practitioners are increasingly taking over primary care responsibilities to address growing patient demand and improve care delivery – and it’s also a great way to prevent burnout. Giving nurses more autonomy over patient cases is empowering. Creating a clear path to leadership as skill levels improve is a tried-and-true way to engage and retain medical staff. 
  5. Promote a healthy lifestyle. Encourage staff to own their mental and physical wellbeing. Offering ways to relieve stress can help employees course correct when they start to feel burned out. Team-bonding activities –e.g., 5K races, fundraisers, and holiday parties – also create time for employees to connect with their peers and build relationships, which in turn reduces workplace stress. 
  6. Invest in training and equipment. Clinical work is physically demanding. In fact, healthcare has the highest rate of work-related injuries. Nurses and physicians are frequently on their feet and must often physically move patients to wheelchairs, walkers, and beds. Investing in equipment to protect the physical health of nurses and physicians is just as important as their mental wellbeing.

Simply put, reducing workplace stress leads to better performance by physicians and nurses. And when they perform better, so do patients.

For more on the state of staff burnout and other challenges facing the healthcare industry, check out the 2019 Annual Patient Safety and Quality Industry Outlook report, conducted by PSQH.