From Burnout to Recovery: Re-Engaging Exhausted Staff

Burnout isn’t a new phenomenon in healthcare, but in the last 20 months, the issue has been brought to the forefront. It’s so prevalent the International Classification of Diseases (ICD-11) has classified it as an occupational phenomenon. 

Burn-out is defined in ICD-11 as follows:

“Burn-out is a syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed. It is characterized by three dimensions:

  • feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion;
  • increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one’s job; and
  • reduced professional efficacy.

It’s important to keep in mind that systems are at the root of much of the burnout seen in individuals. That’s why focusing solely on resilience of individuals will not cure the problem. We need to look for solutions beyond pizza parties and platitudes. 

In a recent report, published by Sodexo[i], Nancy Nankivil, Director of Professional Satisfaction and Practice Sustainability at the American Medical Association stresses, “While burnout manifests itself in individuals, it originates within systems. Looking at the system drivers for change systematically is the more effective strategy than depending on the resilience of individuals.”

Understanding Burnout

There are a variety of reasons for this mass burnout. The pandemic straining our staff and systems is certainly the recent and most talked about cause of burnout. But the issue runs deeper than this. It’s important to recognize that it stems from systems that add to the stress. 

Compassion fatigue certainly contributes to burnout. When you care deeply, you hurt deeply. I remember years ago hearing someone say, “It’s not personal, it’s business,” when talking about difficulties at his job. People who choose healthcare are often driven by their hearts so this adage doesn’t apply at all. It is personal when you care. 

The great resignation is hitting healthcare hard and there is a surge of nurses that are retiring or planning on retiring soon. At the same time, our population is aging creating a greater need for services. We’ve hit a perfect storm in healthcare supply and demand. 

These factors have created chronic, long-term stress putting our healthcare systems in overload and at risk of further issues. Preventing and recovering from burnout isn’t an overnight process, but with the right strategies and consistency, it’s possible.

Remember – Culture is King

Culture is at the core of burnout. Ask yourself these questions about the culture. Does your culture foster a people-first mentality? What mechanisms do you have in place to listen to employee concerns and keep tabs on their well-being? Is the culture one where leaders are connected with the team throughout the day or just a drive-by on occasion? Does the culture consistently strive to improve systems that impact workflow and employee experience? Is your culture psychologically safe for employees to express concerns?

Focus on Employees as Individuals

First and foremost, focusing on employees as individuals sends a strong message that you care about them and see them as more than a warm body covering a shift. Recognize that the well-being of your staff is key. They are not a commodity or an expendable resource. They are individuals with unique needs and priorities. Get to know them, their priorities, and how you can support them. Listen when they talk about broken processes and systems. 

Support Wellbeing

To support employee wellbeing, start by taking a fresh look at benefits. Working long hours is exhausting, leaving your staff with little energy left for home life. Consider offering errand services to help lighten their load with day-to-day responsibilities and chores. This will reduce stress and support work/life balance. When they cover extra shifts, they still need to get laundry and shopping done. Tap into benefits that will help you provide these services for your hardworking team. One example is Help Me LYLA

Ensure you have ready access to mental health resources and that everyone knows how to access them. Offering mindfulness and meditation guidance, on-site yoga classes, and massages can also help to reduce stress and anxiety at work. 

Refrain from calling people to work on their days off. This adds to their pressure because they don’t want to let you down or leave their team members to work short-staffed. 

I was recently coaching a nurse who said, “I know they are desperate when they call me on my days off, but it really adds to my stress. I can’t say, ‘no’ knowing that my friends are working short and struggling.

Meaningful Recognition

Ensuring that everyone feels appreciated is important in building employee engagement. Follow the 3 Ps of recognition. Make it: Prompt, Personal, and Plentiful. 

Tailor your recognition to the recipient to show that you not only appreciate them and their contributions, but you also see them as an individual. A personal thank you note with their favorite candy bar or snack sends the message that you know them and what they like. Sending the thank you note to their home demonstrates that you took the time to show you care. 

Sending a thank you note to the employee’s spouse, significant other, and children is a great gesture of gratitude. Thank them for sharing their mom, dad, or spouse, and let them know how important their loved one is to you, the organization, and the patients they serve. Enclose a gift card for a meal and encourage them to have a family night. 

If there is a silver lining in the pandemic, it’s that it has helped us look at work and life in new ways and to re-prioritize what is important. While burnout isn’t new, we have become more attuned to it and, in the process, can learn from it and make our teams stronger than ever. 

Learn more about how Baird Group can help your teams recover from burnout and transform your organization.


[i] Healthcare Burnout: Supporting Staff and Anticipating the Next Crisis for 2022 and Beyond, Sodexo, 2021

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