June 2, 2022

Report Assesses Effects of COVID-19 on U.S. Healthcare Workforce

In May, the Office of the Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation, part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), issued a report that combines a literature review with data collected by the Census Bureau and Bureau of Labor Statistics to assess challenges related to the COVID-19 pandemic faced by the nation’s healthcare workers. Increased stress caused by the public health crisis has contributed to personnel shortages, mental health concerns, burnout, and related physical health issues, according to HSS. Hospital and outpatient workers are the report’s primary focus, although HHS acknowledges that long-term care, direct care, and public health workers have also been significantly affected.

These challenges exist “in a context of significant pre-existing workforce shortages and maldistribution,” HHS notes, “as well as in a workforce where burnout, stress, and mental health problems were already significant problems.” Before the pandemic, studies showed rates of burnout, depression, and suicide were high for physicians, medical students, and nurses, but varied by specialty and setting.

Early in the pandemic, healthcare workers not directly involved in caring for COVID-19 patients faced furlough or reduced hours, the report explains. As COVID-19 cases surged, hospitals reported staffing shortages, which peaked at 22 percent in mid-January 2022. Pandemic conditions required some staff to work longer hours, extra shifts, and mandatory overtime, as well as to treat more complex patients than they were accustomed to, be responsible for more roles than usual, or aid COVID-19 treatment and response in place of their normal duties. Other pandemic-related stressors included witnessing coworkers become sick and sometimes die, the fear of exposing family members to COVID-19, and increased incidence of workplace violence and verbal abuse, according to the report.

Surveys cited by HHS showed that healthcare workers reported being stressed, anxious, exhausted, burnt out, and overwhelmed, as well as having difficulty sleeping, feeling work-related dread, and receiving inadequate emotional support. For emergency personnel in particular, one survey found that rates of conditions such as depression, traumatic stress, anxiety, insomnia, and alcohol use surpassed estimated baseline rates “and were more comparable to rates seen in studies of emergency personnel during disasters such as Hurricane Katrina.”

The HHS report stresses that healthcare workers faced greater physical risks from COVID-19 infection, including due to chronic conditions and age. By April 2021, about 3,600 healthcare workers had died from COVID-19, and healthcare workers were three times more likely to be infected than the general population. Workers in healthcare reported health effects related to stressful working conditions such as physical exhaustion, changes in appetite, headache, and stomachache.

The report asserts that it is critical to respond to these concerns, as surveys found many respondents considering leaving healthcare work. “Even after the pandemic, many of the effects the pandemic has had on the healthcare workforce will likely persist,” states HHS. “Addressing these impacts, as well as the underlying challenges that predated the pandemic, can help build a stronger and more resilient healthcare system for the future.”

More information, as well as a free PDF of the report, can be found online.