June 9, 2022

Surgeon General Issues Advisory for Healthcare Worker Burnout

An advisory (PDF) issued by U.S. Surgeon General Vivek H. Murthy lists healthcare worker burnout among the top public health priorities of the Office of the Surgeon General, and the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) has published a webpage focused on the issue. The advisory describes burnout as “an occupational syndrome characterized by a high degree of emotional exhaustion and depersonalization (i.e., cynicism) and a low sense of personal accomplishment at work.” Burnout among healthcare workers may negatively impact the quality of the nation’s healthcare, the advisory stresses. Healthcare worker burnout is now one of four of the Surgeon General’s public health priorities, alongside COVID-19, health misinformation, and youth mental health.

According to the HHS webpage, “a range of societal, cultural, structural, and organizational factors,” such as excessive workloads, administrative burdens, limited worker input into work schedules, and lack of organizational support, may contribute to healthcare workers experiencing burnout. “If not addressed,” HHS continues, “the health worker burnout crisis will make it harder for patients to get care when they need it, cause health costs to rise, hinder our ability to prepare for the next public health emergency, and worsen health disparities.” Resources featured on the department’s website include a video statement by Dr. Murthy that highlights the urgency and toll of health worker burnout, printable graphics available for free download, and links to additional tips and toolkits.

The 76-page advisory provides additional information on the causes and effects of burnout, which include mental and physical health symptoms experienced by individual healthcare workers, errors and delays in patient care, healthcare workforce shortages, loss of trust in healthcare services, and worse health outcomes across wider society. The advisory also outlines actions that can be taken to address healthcare worker burnout by healthcare organizations; federal, state, local, and tribal governments; health insurers; healthcare technology companies; academic institutions, clinical training programs, and accreditation organizations; healthcare workers’ families, friends, and communities; and healthcare workers themselves.

Before and since the COVID-19 pandemic, studies by observers within and outside the healthcare industry have noted healthcare worker burnout as a significant concern. The advisory notes as well that U.S. healthcare workers experienced high levels of burnout before the pandemic and that the public health crisis has likely exacerbated the issue.

In addition to HHS, other organizations are taking steps to address healthcare workers’ mental health. For example, a NIOSH campaign is focused on work stress and mental health among healthcare workers, and a resource issued by the National Academy of Medicine focuses on healthcare worker well-being.

Related: An article published in the November 2020 issue of The Synergist focuses on the topic of COVID-19 and worker fatigue. Author Imelda Wong, PhD, coordinator of the NIOSH Center for Work and Fatigue Research, discusses what employers and workers can do to mitigate and manage fatigue.