No matter how many times we call them heroes, nor how many times we take real action and lend a hand at home, healthcare workers’ roles in the response to the COVID pandemic simply can not be understated. Already in a profession that requires unparalleled toughness and self-control, the pandemic exponentially added stress to nurses’ lives

Healthcare burnout was also something somewhat regularly discussed before the pandemic, but just as the business sector was forced to act on a long-discussed move to remote work, hospitals and other care facilities (hopefully) acted to take measures to deal with the burnouts nurses and other staff are experiencing due to the now-year-long uptick in patients due to COVID-19. 

The cure to any sort of mental or physical ailment starts with research, and universities are doing their parts in researching ways to increase the effectiveness of stress management for nurses, ultimately helping them cope with the nearly inevitable burnouts that are affecting the vast majority of healthcare workers in the U.S., and abroad. 

What is Healthcare Burnout?

According to a report from January of 2020 conducted by the National Academy of Medicine (a couple of months before the pandemic) up to 54% of doctors and nurses at a given locale had experienced burnout at some point during the previous year. Since the pandemic has struck, another poll concluded that 40% of nurses were considering leaving their jobs, due to the pandemic, and who can blame them?

Burnout is defined, simply, as “a long-term stress reaction marked by exhaustion, depersonalization, and a lack of a sense of accomplishment.” Those first two seem normal, given the uptick in work and the feelings of wanting to be alone we have all had following a busy week, but the sense of accomplishment is the defining side-effect, as the mental anguish caused by stress is making the true heroes of the pandemic feel worthless. 

When discussing burnout in social workers, Rebecca Gomez, Ph.D., LCSW, associate dean for academic and student affairs and associate professor in the VCU School of Social Work says, “One of the healing components in social work practice is the relationship between the social worker and the client. When the social worker is impacted by stress, burnout, compassion fatigue, or vicarious trauma their ability to show up fully for that relationship is diminished.”

It’s unfortunate enough that these heroes of the pandemic are feeling these things, but they can and do also affect the quality of care that these individuals provide. With that, nurse burnout has a downward effect that can legitimately affect situations of life and death, making it a twofold issue that is worthy of the attention it is currently getting in terms of treatment. 

What are Universities Doing to Help?

“Throughout the past year, universities have had to adjust to the challenges of the pandemic by revisiting how the curriculum is delivered, as well as enhancing curriculum and course materials to prepare healthcare administration students to enter into the field.” says Karen Schecther,  Director and Assistant Professor in the Online Healthcare Management and Health Administration Programs at Maryville University

After conducting research involving nurse burnout both before and during the pandemic, experts have determined that organization-wide steps to increase awareness of both burnout and its effects on patients is step number 1, as the issue has long been pushed aside and chalked up as part of the job that needs to be dealt with. 

Dr. Charles Figley, founder of the Traumatology Institute at Tulane University, and a professor in their School of Social Work, adds “If we academics prepare our students to deal with the healthcare system for burnout, any physical or mental condition or a combination of both, the university has a responsibility to be part of addressing and helping to treat the condition.” 

By utilizing hospital data and predictive analysis tools, these university studies have been able to create implementable training guides to address and correct burnout. A major part of the study concluded that utilizing technology more for things outside of the scope of care can greatly reduce time spent working, and increase time spent dealing with stress. Data collection processes, information sharing, and streamlining daily processes, especially those related to medical records, are seen as opportunity points in reducing nurse and doctor stress. 

In-hospital offerings such as meditation space and workout studios have also been recommended as quickly implementable means of addressing burnout. 

The final place these universities are helping is by simply adding courses on burnout treatment and self-care to their curriculums to help reverse the generational stigma that a good nurse or doctor has to deal with their stress alone.cStudents studying for these professions report higher stress levels than most of their collegiate peers, so implementing these practices is practical even at the student level. 

“While studying at the Virginia Commonwealth University School of Social Work, students are provided opportunities to learn about the practice of self-care during their coursework” added Dr. Gomez. “They also get to see this modeled during their hands on learning in the field where they work with established and skilled social work practitioners.”

What can You Do?

If you’re in the healthcare field, and your site of care has yet to lead a charge against burnouts, self-education and peer awareness are great first steps. Practicing self care can also help to alleviate the stress caused by burnout. For those individuals not in the healthcare field, you can assist simply by being an understanding and patient patient. This will be an ongoing struggle within the hospital community long after the pandemic, so continuing to treat healthcare workers like heroes is justified and right!