The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) have issued a warning about a rising mental health crisis among health workers. Their recent report indicates a concerning increase in burnout among these professionals, with nearly half feeling overwhelmed in 2022, a jump from just under one-third in 2018.
Disturbingly, incidents of health workers experiencing harassment at their workplace have also more than doubled. When compared to other sectors, health professionals appear to be grappling with more severe mental health challenges.
This report was published shortly after the unprecedented health care worker strike involving 75,000 unionized Kaiser Permanente employees. These workers, from five states and the District of Columbia, walked out due to feelings of burnout and persistent staff shortages.
Dr. Debra Houry, the CDC’s chief medical officer, emphasized the need for attention to this issue. “Health workers have always been there for others in critical times. Now, they are the ones in dire need of support,” she said.
She also pointed out that even before the pandemic’s onset, the nature of health care jobs was taxing. These roles come with extended working hours, erratic schedules, exposure to infectious diseases, and the occasional challenges of dealing with patients and their relatives.
It’s worth noting that earlier studies have shown specific groups within the healthcare sector, such as nurses and health technicians, possess a heightened risk of suicide compared to individuals outside the medical profession.
Health Care Workers Under Strain: Houry Shares Insights
“Caring for the unwell is not only a physical strain but a heavy emotional burden,” expressed Dr. Houry. “I recall moments of delivering heart-wrenching news like a terminal cancer diagnosis to a partner, or the devastating aftermath of a failed resuscitation of a toddler post-car accident. Despite these trying experiences, I often found myself setting aside my own emotional well-being to cater to my family’s needs.”
Dr. Houry highlighted that the onslaught of the Covid-19 pandemic exacerbated workplace strains. With health care providers confronting an influx of patients, coupled with extended work hours and resource shortages, the sector witnessed a spike in mental health issues, suicidal tendencies, and, mirroring wider US trends, challenges related to substance abuse.
Recent studies have underscored the deteriorating mental well-being of health care workers from 2018 to 2022. For example, 44% of these workers have contemplated seeking new employment opportunities in 2022, a rise from the 33% in 2018. Interestingly, other essential workers’ inclination to change jobs declined in the same timeframe.
One alarming trend is the escalation of harassment faced by health care workers, ranging from verbal abuse to threats of violence from both patients and colleagues. During the study’s span, instances of such harassment surged from 6% to 13%.
The CDC report drew a clear correlation between harassment and mental health detriments among health care workers. For instance, those who faced harassment were five times more prone to anxiety and thrice as likely to suffer depression than their non-harassed counterparts. An overwhelming 85% of harassed health workers experienced anxiety, a stark contrast to the 53% who hadn’t faced harassment. Moreover, 60% of those harassed reported depression, nearly double that of their peers.
However, there’s a silver lining. Such adverse outcomes can be mitigated, the report suggests, with enhanced workplace policies and measures.
Health Workers Benefit from Supportive Work Environments: Study Findings
The research underscored that health workers who felt a sense of trust in their management, believed they had adequate time for tasks, and received consistent supervisory support were less prone to burnout.
Casey Chosewood, who leads the Office for Total Worker Health at the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, emphasized the importance of these findings. “It’s crucial for employers to understand and implement these insights. A supportive workplace positively influences the mental well-being of health workers,” Chosewood remarked.
Furthermore, the report champions the idea of fostering employee participation across varying organizational levels in decision-making. When health workers were actively involved in such processes, the chances of them exhibiting signs of depression were slashed by approximately 50%. For fostering a healthier work environment, Chosewood advocates that managerial staff vigilantly track staffing requirements and promptly address any instances of harassment.
Additionally, a national awareness campaign is on the horizon, set to be introduced by the CDC’s National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health this upcoming fall. This campaign is designed to guide hospital leaders in enhancing the mental well-being of their health staff, aligning with the institute’s broader initiative to spotlight the mental health concerns of health workers.
In concluding remarks, Chosewood stated, “It’s more than urgent to translate our research into actionable steps. Referring to our ongoing challenges merely as a ‘crisis’ might even be an understatement. Ultimately, the entire community benefits when our health professionals are at their best and flourishing.”