On Monday, May 23, United States Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy issued a new Surgeon General’s Advisory highlighting the urgent need to address the health worker burnout crisis across the country.
Nurses and other health care workers have long faced systemic challenges in the health care system even before the COVID-19 pandemic, leading to crisis levels of burnout, according to the Surgeon General. The pandemic further exacerbated burnout for health workers, with many risking and sacrificing their own lives in the service of others while responding to a public health crisis.
We have seen this play out in Washington state, where our bill to set minimum safe staffing standards for nurses and health care workers made it through the House in the 2022 Legislative Session but didn’t come up for a floor vote in the Senate. The Washington Safe + Healthy campaign – a coalition effort of the Washington State Nurses Association, SEIU 1199 Northwest and UFCW 3000 – conducted a poll of 1,200 health care workers in December 2021. Of respondents, 84% of health care workers said they’re burned out, and half (49%) said they’re likely to quit health care in the next few years. Among those likely to quit, 71% said short staffing was among their primary reasons.
The Surgeon General’s Advisory Addressing Health Worker Burnout lays out recommendations that the whole-of-society can take to address the factors underpinning burnout, improve health worker well-being, and strengthen the nation’s public health infrastructure.
“The nation’s health depends on the well-being of our health workforce. Confronting the long-standing drivers of burnout among our health workers must be a top national priority,” said Surgeon General Vivek Murthy in a news release. “COVID-19 has been a uniquely traumatic experience for the health workforce and for their families, pushing them past their breaking point. Now, we owe them a debt of gratitude and action. And if we fail to act, we will place our nation’s health at risk. This Surgeon General’s Advisory outlines how we can all help heal those who have sacrificed so much to help us heal.”
Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, health workers were experiencing alarming levels of burnout – broadly defined as a state of emotional exhaustion, depersonalization, and low sense of personal accomplishment at work. In 2019, the National Academies of Medicine (NAM) reported that burnout had reached “crisis” levels - PDF , with up to 54% of nurses and physicians, and up to 60% of medical students and residents, suffering from burnout.
The Surgeon General’s Advisory Addressing Health Worker Burnout lays out recommendations for health care organizations, health insurers, health technology companies, policymakers, academic institutions, researchers, and communities to address health worker burnout and ensure their well-being – so that health workers can thrive and better answer their call as healers.
Topline recommendations to address burnout in the Surgeon General’s Advisory include:
- Transform workplace culture to empower health workers and be responsive to their voices and needs, including soliciting ideas on how to improve processes and workflows.
- Eliminate punitive policies for seeking mental health and substance use disorder care and endure accessible on-demand counseling.
- Protect the health, safety, and well-being of all health workers, by providing wages and benefits that support health care workers and ensuring adequate staffing, among other things.
- Reduce administrative burdens to help health workers have productive time with patients, communities, and colleagues.
- Prioritize social connection and community as a core value of the healthcare system, including peer and team-based models.
- Invest in public health and our public health workforce, to diversify and expand the workforce and work of public health.
Surgeon General's Advisories are public statements that call the American people's attention to a public health issue and provide recommendations for how it should be addressed. Advisories are reserved for significant public health challenges that need the American people's immediate attention.
Read Addressing Health Worker Burnout: The U.S. Surgeon General’s Advisory for Building a Thriving Health Workforce at www.surgeongeneral.gov/burnout.