The U.S. surgeon general is calling attention to health care worker burnout and issuing recommendations to improve well-being for physicians and others.
An advisory from Surgeon General Vivek Murthy, MD, calls attention to the root causes of burnout – saying they’re the product of systems, not individuals, with “a range of societal, cultural, structural, and organizational factors” that drive it.
“Health workers, including physicians, nurses, community and public health workers, nurse aides, among others, have long faced systemic challenges in the health care system even before the COVID-19 pandemic, leading to crisis levels of burnout,” the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) said in a statement. “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.”
The advisory notes a projection from the Association of American Medical Colleges that by 2033, the nation will have a shortage of between 54,100 and 139,000 physicians, “with the most alarming gaps in primary care and rural communities.”
The advisory also noted research saying health care workers of color are more likely to report having inadequate personal protective equipment and “have been nearly twice as likely as white colleagues to test positive for COVID-19.” Women and health care workers of color are among the groups that have reported higher levels of stress related to workload and mental health, along with inpatient workers, social workers, and nursing and medical assistants.
To better address burnout, the surgeon general recommends:
- Transforming workplace culture to empower health care workers; listening to them; and seeking their involvement to improve organizational culture, processes, and workflows;
- Eliminating punitive policies for seeking care for mental health and substance use disorder;
- Protecting the health, safety, and well-being of health workers, including by providing living wages, sick and family leave, rest breaks, and educational debt support; and
- Reducing administrative burdens.
Surgeon general advisories are reserved for “significant public health challenges that need the American people’s immediate attention,” the HHS statement said.