With burnout among healthcare workers growing to "crisis" levels, health systems are now investing more in mental health and wellness programs to help their employees reduce stress and improve overall retention, Lauren Berryman writes for Modern Healthcare.
According to Gail Gazelle, an assistant professor at Harvard Medical School, healthcare workers have been facing pressures, such as burnout and labor shortages, for years now — but the COVID-19 pandemic further exacerbated these problems.
"The pandemic has really accelerated levels of burnout and levels, sadly, of depression, anxiety, suicidality in physicians, and physicians leaving the workforce prematurely," Gazelle said.
In a July 2022 survey from Bain, 25% of clinicians said they were considering switching careers, with 90% citing burnout as a reason. Separately, Medscape's Physician Suicide Report 2023 found that 25% of physicians said they were depressed, and 9% said that they've experienced suicidal thoughts.
"As health system leadership has committed to patient safety and quality of patient care, it needs to be front and center as part of their mission that they are equally going to make sure they are prioritizing the health and well-being of their workforce," said Erin Ney, an expert associate partner in the healthcare practice at Bain.
Going forward, health systems are focusing more on "long-term, creative, and cost-effective" investment to help them support their employees' mental health, Berryman writes. While some organizations are scaling up pre-pandemic programs, others are developing new initiatives and making organizational changes to reduce the stigma of mental illness.
According to Nigel Girgrah, chief wellness officer at Ochsner Health, employee wellness is linked to better safety and quality and improved financial performance.
In 2019, Ochsner launched the Professional Experience Program (PEP), a voluntary benefit that is available to physicians and advanced practice providers who are experiencing burnout. During the pandemic, the program expanded to further support workers who were struggling with an influx of COVID-19 patients.
Staff in the program work to identify root causes of burnout — which may range from how workers use EHRs to team dynamics — before developing 90-day plans with actionable solutions. So far, employee surveys have reported positive results through the program.
In addition to PEP, Ochsner has also created short videos on resilience, a four-hour virtual course on the topic, and an eight-hour in-person course.
At Inspira Health, leaders encouraged an open dialogue about mental health after the most difficult moments of the pandemic. A staff committee has also created a toolkit to help managers facilitate discussion about physical, mental, social, and spiritual wellness.
"I don't think we were doing those things before in the same way or having these conversations," said Inspira's president and CEO Amy Mansue.
The health system also started arranging wellness days for its workers this year, the first of which took place in February. During these days, employees can get health screenings and participate in stress-relieving activities, such as pet therapy and massage chairs.
"During the pandemic, we didn't have time to breathe, honestly," Mansue said. "This has really been, post-pandemic, 'How do we support people and move forward?'"
Leaders at CommonSpirit Health are currently looking for ways to help clinicians apply how they care for patients to their own physical and mental well-being.
"How can we help from an organizational perspective turn that care internally for our employees, and how can we support them throughout?" said Melissa Reeves, system director for well-being at CommonSpirit.
According to Reeves, the health system is working to adjust its wellness programs based on employee feedback. Although workers used employee assistance programs and mental health offerings throughout the pandemic, they were not always accessing care in a timely manner.
To improve the accessibility of its programs, CommonSpirit launched a MyWellness hub last year to offer all its well-being initiatives in one location. Employees can earn points for completing actions throughout the year to receive financial awards, like gift cards or contributions to their health accounts.
The health system is also piloting a program called Code Kindness at one of its hospitals. This program allows workers to call for trained professionals, including spiritual care staff, to help colleagues who are struggling.
Atrium Health, part of Advocate Health
During the pandemic, Atrium Health, which is now part of Advocate Health, worked to destigmatize mental illness among its employees and improve its existing programs.
One such program is the Code Lavender initiative, which allows workers to call the code when they are undergoing mental or emotional strain and need a break.
"We offered [that at Atrium Health] before, but we were not as intentional about making sure that leaders are on the floor and letting employees know that it is OK that you're struggling in some way," said Jim Dunn, EVP and chief people and culture officer for Advocate Health.
Overall, providing a greater focus on employee health and wellness and successfully navigating challenges related to employee wellness programs are essential to providing patients with the best care, according to Marlene Fisher, Inspira's employee health and wellness director.
"It's awareness that we have to make ourselves … a priority," she said. "Otherwise, we can't stay in business. We can't continue to care for our communities if we're not OK—all of us." (Berryman, Modern Healthcare, 3/21)
Create your free account to access 2 resources each month, including the latest research and webinars.
You have 2 free members-only resources remaining this month remaining this month.
Never miss out on the latest innovative health care content tailored to you.