Burnout in healthcare staff is as common as the cold: how hospitals can manage burnout syndrome

Prof Cheng Fanjun, dean of west campus of Wuhan’s Union Hospital, is no stranger to managing staff burnout. He shares his hospital’s strategies, which came in particularly critical during Wuhan’s immense COVID-19 battle.

It has been over a year since the world entered into battle with the COVID-19 pandemic. For healthcare workers at the frontline, this meant over a year of longer work hours, heightened tension at work, and stress over potentially catching the infection themselves or passing the virus on to their loved ones.

It is no wonder that the burnout rates among healthcare frontliners have skyrocketed over the pandemic period. Many have not been able to catch a break to de-stress, while there is no end in sight to the pandemic, which have continued to surge in parts of the world.

Burnt out healthcare staff lead to obvious negative consequences. We know that when we’re stressed out we are more likely to make mistakes. This may compromise patient safety and service quality, and subsequently decrease productivity, staff satisfaction and hospital operation efficiency, causing a vicious cycle.

A case study of Wuhan

Professor Cheng Fanjun

As the epicentre of the COVID-19 pandemic back in end 2019, medical staff in Wuhan were under immense stress facing off with a then-unknown virus. Professor Cheng Fanjun, dean of west campus of Wuhan’s Union Hospital and assistant dean of Union Hospital, lauded his staff for their work ethos and discipline in the face of challenges back then, and for their selfless sacrifice for the profession. However, he recalled that a lack of expertise and medical supplies, as well as the sense of helplessness when dealing with patients in critical condition, led to high levels of stress.

“Undeniably, in the pandemic response that lasted over a hundred days, signs of burnout did arise in some of the medical staff, due to long-term intense workload and constant mental stress,” said Prof Cheng. “These signs were more obvious in the later stages of the pandemic. We saw more staff showing symptoms such as insomnia, nausea, loss of appetite, depression and anxiety, and an increase in requests for psychological counselling and intervention.”

Even before the pandemic brought burnout to the fore, the issue has already been commonplace amongst healthcare professionals, noted Prof Cheng. “Healthcare staff burnout occurs as commonly as the cold or the flu; throughout their careers, staff may experience several bouts of burnout, of varying degrees and of varying durations.” He noted that over his near 40 year-long career, the rapid rate of economic development and technological advancements, increased lifestyle stress, fast pace of life and urbanisation are seemingly factors that have increased professional burnout in all modern workers. Specifically for hospital workers, they also have to deal with the stress factors arising from hospital expansion, the need to specialise in niche areas, and difficulty in obtaining promotion and career development opportunities.

Strategies for hospitals to manage burnout

Union Hospital management was conscious that burnout is a critical issue that needs to be urgently managed, and has put in place a comprehensive set of measures consisting of four strategies, shared Prof Cheng.

Firstly, in talent recruitment and management, the hospital focuses on the individuals’ ability to manage stress and their mental strength, in addition to their work expertise. “Our hospital firmly believes that human resources are the most precious asset for the hospital’s development,” said Prof Cheng. He added: “To elevate staff’s ability to adapt to new environments and job roles, we established a system to regularly rotate staff amongst the four hospital zones of Union Hospital.”

Secondly, Prof Cheng shared that the hospital works to moderate staff workload, which can be overwhelming at times due to night shifts and long surgeries. Some approaches they have taken to reduce workload include mandatory block leave, rotational leave, rearrangement of shift schedules, and counselling sessions.

Ensuring holistic and fair performance evaluation, and fair remuneration, will also go a long way in ensuring staff motivation and job satisfaction. “The hospital plans to gradually increase the proportion of staff costs as part of the hospital’s expenditure, and continue to enhance the performance appraisal system and remuneration mechanism,” said Prof Cheng. The appraisal will comprehensively look at the medical, teaching and research aspects of the staff members’ performance to decide promotion opportunities. All these are aimed at providing smooth career development pathways for all its staff.

Last but not least, care and well-being initiatives (such as building hospital culture or holding counselling sessions) have been rolled out to focus on the mental health of staff and their families, helping them to relieve their negative emotions and stress in a timely manner.

All in all, he noted that the various levels of hospital management will play an important role. The heads of departments and clinical directors will need to demonstrate their leadership and capabilities in identifying and reaching out to staff, to minimise the adverse effects of job burnout.

The upcoming HMA China conference in August 2021 will gather hospital executives from China and around the world for sharing sessions and panel discussions. The issue of healthcare staff burnout will be discussed as part of the Quality & Safety Excellence track, in the “Protecting healthcare staff to protect patients: How to reduce burnout and enhance safety of frontline workers?” panel discussion.

Don’t miss the chance to hear from Prof Cheng and other Chinese healthcare leaders at HMA China – click here now to register.