Burnout isn't just in employees' head; it's in their circumstances

As an organisational psychologist, I’ve spent part of my career studying burnout in schools, fire departments, governments and hospitals | File photo
The health of a society depends heavily on health care professionals, but the profession has a problem: burnout. Over half of doctors and a third of nurses feel it, and the consequences are dire. When providers burn out, patients are less likely to get quality care and more likely to die.


During a pandemic, the risks of burnout become even more acute: Medical professionals are braving high disease exposure, long hours and inadequate resources.


The heart of burnout is emotional exhaustion — feeling so depleted and drained by your job that you have nothing left to give. In the US, over half of employees feel burned out at least some of the time. It doesn’t just hurt our productivity — it can harm our mental and physical health, too. There’s evidence linking burnout to weakened immune systems and even cardiovascular disease. It’s no wonder that burnout has been declared an occupational syndrome by the World Health Organisation.


As an organisational psychologist, I’ve spent part of my career studying burnout in schools, fire departments, governments and hospitals. My favourite model is demand-control-support. The basic idea is that if you want to prevent or cure emotional exhaustion, you have three options: reduce the demands of a job, provide support to deal with them or increase control over them.


Reducing job demands: This is a structural change; it’s about decreasing the load on the person doing the job. In health care, it often starts with decreasing digital demands. If you want to hear a health care provider curse, try asking them to estimate how many hours they waste a year clicking through electronic health records. At the Cleveland Clinic, for example, they launched a task force to simplify the process. They also introduced some digital solutions to lift the burden of calling pharmacies for refills and insurance companies for tests: now they have automated refills and pre-authorisations.


Increasing support: Here is where cultural change comes in. One of the biggest barriers to support is that people are often afraid to ask for help, of being vulnerable and a burden to others. They want to look competent and self-reliant. To make sure people get the support they need, it helps to remind them that asking for help is a sign of strength, not a source of weakness. In hospitals, my colleagues and I have found that creating a nurse preceptor role — a professional whose job is to help other nurses — facilitates help-seeking.


Increasing control: This is about giving people the freedom and the skills they need to handle the demands of their jobs. It often starts with psychological change: When we’re feeling overwhelmed, it can help to apply some evidence-based techniques for regulating emotions. Two of the most effective strategies for gaining control over our emotions are reappraisal and distraction. A teacher feeling daunted by the challenges of delivering online classes might reframe it as an opportunity to build new skills.


Mind your emotions: Another avenue for control is to name our emotions. When you name your exhaustion, it becomes easier to see that it’s not a problem in your head; it’s a problem in your circumstances. You can start to pinpoint situations where it rises and falls — and start doing something about it.


Anyone can burn out in any job. But especially in a pandemic, we need to make sure we care for the caregivers.



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