From a significant increase in work hours to escalating demands at home, the COVID-19 pandemic introduced a heightened level of stress in nearly all facets of life for many individuals on a global scale. Heading into the third year of the pandemic, burnout and stress are even more prevalent in the lives of working Canadians across every industry, however, healthcare professionals have been a group who have undeniably been impacted the most at large. Now more than ever, industry leaders should face this issue and create a more supportive environment for all.
Factors such as exhaustion, burnout, and maltreatment as well as an estimated 41,566 deaths in Canada as a result of COVID-19 have placed immense pressure on the country’s workforce of healthcare professionals.
Burnout among healthcare professionals was already prevalent before the onset of the pandemic
Even prior to the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, healthcare professionals were already being impacted by high levels of stress and burnout. In fact, according to a survey conducted by the Canadian Medical Association (CMA), in 2019, nearly 1 in 5 physicians (19 per cent) went into work at least five times, in the previous year, while feeling physically ill or distressed. Additionally, 53 per cent of the survey’s respondents indicated they were dissatisfied with the efficiency and resources in their workplace.
Although the phenomenon of “clinician burnout” is not a new concept, its risk factors have been exacerbated throughout the pandemic, resulting in an urgent need for intervention.
The onset of the pandemic accelerated the rate in which healthcare professionals are burning out
With the onset of COVID-19, healthcare professionals have been more exposed to physical and mental exhaustion for the criticism of difficult decisions, the heavy workload placed on their shoulders, the grief of losing coworkers and patients, as well as the risk of infection, for themselves and for their family members.
A study in 2020, funded by MI4 (McGill Interdisciplinary Initiative in Infection and Immunity) and led by the Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences revealed that amongst the respondents 50 per cent of nurses and 20 per cent of physicians expressed intentions to quit their jobs.
When hospitals face major staffing shortages, it is not business as usual. With more professionals leaving Canada’s healthcare industry due to burnout in combination with staff being unable to show up for shifts due to catching COVID-19 themselves, we are seeing a lack of proper staffing infrastructure, which in turn impacts the way care should be delivered in Canada.
A pathway forward that better supports healthcare professionals in Canada
As more clinicians are feeling the impact of the last few years of upheaval, healthcare leaders must begin to identify new, innovative ways to help address burnout and make meaningful and sustainable changes to protect providers’ mental health. Although the roadmap to improving healthcare professionals’ experience will require ongoing listening, evaluation, and action, we have identified some areas that constitute a good starting point:
Ensuring decision makers work more closely with stakeholders in Canada’s healthcare ecosystem to have a better understanding of clinicians’ experiences, to begin to improve and develop policies for the wellness of healthcare workers in Canada both in the short and over the longer term.
Developing and implementing programs which focus exclusively on the post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) symptoms of healthcare professionals, to help them more effectively cope with the current crisis, improve their mental health, and reduce their PTSD as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Reducing administrative burdens by introducing and implementing innovations in health technology to better support healthcare professionals in managing their day-to-day responsibilities.
Promoting the aspect of “wellness” to address burnout early on in professional development, through educational institutions collaborating with healthcare organizations to ensure efforts to prevent burnout are coordinated across both the work and learning environments.
Conducting more research in Canada to identify the various learning environment influences and work system factors that increase the likelihood of clinician burnout. Most importantly, this research should strive to understand the impacts of burnout among various groups within Canada's healthcare ecosystem, to better treat burnout within select health professions.
Reducing the overall stigma and barriers associated with clinicians and learners getting the necessary support to prevent and treat symptoms of burnout, while also prioritizing facilitating proper recovery from burnout. Healthcare organizations, licensure boards, and other external organizations must work to eliminate this stigma and ensure that the expectations and responses they provide to clinicians do not penalize them for seeking out help.
In a long-lasting pandemic, it is critical to think about the short and longer-term impacts on clinicians and to put interventions in place both during and after the immediate crisis period. It is now time for healthcare leaders in Canada from every sector, to have an open discussion and begin working together to identify the greatest pain points for healthcare professionals to implement a roadmap that aims to lessen the impact of burnout. Our healthcare professionals continue to work tirelessly to take care of us. It is now time for us to step up to the plate and offer them our support.
Our team of experts at NATIONAL can help you start a dialogue to drive changes and deliver results. We would love to hear from you.
——— Samantha Thompson is a former Senior Consultant at NATIONAL Public Relations
——— Jennifer McEvoy is a former Senior Vice-President and Practice Lead, Healthcare at NATIONAL Public Relations