For years, healthcare burnout has afflicted providers and staff and has been a major issue of concern for organizations. The COVID-19 pandemic has only exacerbated the problem. Technology is often touted as the solution to burnout among healthcare workers, and while it can mitigate some of the causes of burnout, the answer is not just about having technology—it’s about ensuring that technology is properly implemented to support people.
In this article, we examine burnout: the factors that contribute to it, how to spot it, how it affects healthcare organization and workers, and how to help avoid it. We’ll also show you how, depending on how it’s used, technology can either help alleviate or contribute to burnout.
Prevalence of burnout in healthcare workers
A study from Mental Health America found that from June to September of last year, 76% of providers reported feelings of exhaustion and burnout. The rollout of COVID-19 vaccines has reduced the strain on the healthcare system, but so far that has done little to reduce rates of burnout: A 2021 Kaiser Family Foundation survey found that 70% of providers still feel “burned out” about work. While the past year has been an exceptionally stressful one—not just for clinicians, but for all healthcare staff—burnout is not just a pandemic-related problem. It is caused by, and has a wide range of effects on, healthcare organizations, physicians, providers, staff, and patients.
The impact of burnout in healthcare
We’ve previously outlined the dangers of healthcare burnout, mental health, and the various effects it has on every level of healthcare. For organizations and facilities, burnout introduces significant financial risk, while for providers and staff, burnout poses a threat to their mental and emotional wellbeing. Even patients are not immune to the hazards of burnout in healthcare, because overwhelmed and stressed healthcare professionals can have a profoundly negative impact on patient safety as well.
Previous studies have shown that physician burnout costs the healthcare industry $4.6 billion per year, while estimates place the cost of nurse burnout to the healthcare system at $14 billion per year. That’s almost $20 billion each year in costs directly associated with burnout, primarily in nurse and provider turnover and reduced clinical hours. And if we include the cost of errors that stem from burnout (another $20 billion), that means burnout costs the healthcare industry $40 billion per year. That figure doesn’t take into account the cost of burnout among administrative staff and other healthcare workers.
Symptoms of healthcare burnout
Mitigating the staggering impact of burnout must be a priority for health systems. But to do that, leaders need to be able to spot the early symptoms of burnout before it spirals out of control. So what should they look for?
In an ideal workflow, everyone should take roughly the same amount of time to complete their tasks, and everyone should be responsible for an equal share of the workload. Inefficient workflows often add up to significant amounts of wasted time, which in turn can make healthcare workers feel as though they have too much to do and not enough time to do it.
A cumbersome workflow can also lead to bottlenecks, which forces everyone within the workflow to stop and wait for an essential task to be done before they can continue on to the next one. As a general rule, bottlenecks are a sign of inefficient resources and, likely, an overextended worker who is struggling to keep up and is on their way to burning out.
When healthcare providers and staff are complaining about inefficiencies in organizational workflows, leaders should listen to their feedback and make the necessary adjustments. If they don’t, they could soon find themselves with a burned-out staff.
Long hours and sleep deprivation
Healthcare is an inherently stressful field, and it is crucial for healthcare workers to maintain a good work-life balance to avoid burnout. If healthcare workers are routinely putting in long hours and are suffering from sleep deprivation or exhaustion, it’s only a matter of time until burnout sets in—if it hasn’t already.
Medical students, too, are vulnerable during their graduate studies, internship, and residency training to pressures associated with the demands of medicine. Experts say dispelling the notion that all medical students are “super resilient” and capable of handling the pressure of balancing medical school studies and daily life alone is a start to helping prevent burnout before their careers in the medical field even begin. In fact, medical students are no different than the general public in that they're susceptible to suffering from burnout and the depression and anxiety that accompany it.
The biggest source of stress for Americans is money, and healthcare workers are not immune to the effects of financial stress. Even a physician earning a high salary has likely incurred a significant amount of student debt. Strictly speaking, financial stress is not a symptom of burnout, but it can play a key contributing role in burnout and is something leaders should keep an eye on in their staff.
Study after study shows that healthcare burnout is an epidemic that costs tremendous amounts of money and poses a significant risk to the wellbeing of healthcare workers and patients alike. Healthcare leaders know all too well how burnout can negatively affect every element of the healthcare system. The challenge they face is finding a solution.
Is technology the answer? It can be when it’s used in the right way—but if it isn’t, technology actually has the potential to make burnout worse.
How technology can worsen burnout
Ironically, technological advances in healthcare have likely played a role in exacerbating burnout for healthcare workers. In a recent survey of more than 15,000 healthcare workers, almost a third (32.7%) reported experiencing frustration with healthcare technology at least 3-5 days a week; the survey also found that frustration with technology was associated with higher levels of emotional exhaustion and poorer work-life balance.
In many instances, the technology itself isn’t the reason for burnout—it’s the way the technology has been implemented. Electronic medical records (EMR) systems are undoubtedly an improvement over paper charting and archiving patient files, and they allow providers and staff to more efficiently care for a greater number of patients. But when an EMR is not implemented properly, it can make life harder for healthcare professionals and disrupt their workflow. Even worse, the EMR is supposed to make it easier to see more patients, which increases pressure on medical professionals without giving them the right tools for the job.
Here are some of the ways that technology can actually contribute to burnout.
One commonly-cited reason for burnout among nurses is what’s known as “click fatigue,” which comes from having to tick a long list of checkboxes for each patient within an EMR—and having to do it every single time. To make matters worse, many nurses contend that these checkboxes give an incomplete picture of their interaction with each patient. As one nurse said, “I feel like oftentimes my experiences at the bedside are not able to be captured completely through clicks in boxes.”
Burden of learning new systems
Learning a new system can be a stressful experience, especially when the quality of patient care relies on using the system properly. Physicians and other healthcare workers often have very little opportunity to practice with a new system before it is implemented. As a result, systems are often designed without the benefit of user feedback, and unless the IT leader designed the system perfectly, the healthcare workers using it have to adjust their workflow on the fly. This is a big reason why, according to a Mayo Clinic study, EMR usability scores were associated with rates of burnout among physicians.
Constant overhaul of processes
Adjusting to a new system is stressful enough on its own, but eventually, healthcare workers will adapt. But if the system needs to be updated post-implementation, staff must repeatedly make these stressful adjustments to keep pace with a constantly-changing system. Updating systems and processes to make them more efficient is a worthwhile effort, but to reduce stress on healthcare workers, healthcare leaders should strategically plan and clearly communicate any necessary updates.
How technology can help alleviate healthcare burnout
Technology has the potential to increase rates of burnout; however, when used properly, it can be the ideal solution to help reduce burnout among physicians and other healthcare workers. Here are just a few of the ways technology can be used to alleviate healthcare burnout.
Technology can help improve the efficiency of workflows across all areas of a health system. For example, visitor management technology can streamline the check-in process for facility visitors and give staff greater clarity over who is on-site at any given moment, and vendor management software can simplify the process of credentialing and managing on-site vendors and ensure vendor representatives have the necessary certifications as required by the facility.
As mentioned above, technology has the potential to complicate provider workflows, but it can also greatly improve workflows as well. When implemented properly, technology can make it easier for healthcare professionals to document their patient interactions, share patient information with other providers, and ensure everyone involved in patient care is on the same page.
Long hours and inefficient or inadequate staffing place a significant burden on healthcare providers and staff, which can quickly turn into burnout if left unchecked. Technology can help healthcare leaders effectively manage their workforce by allocating the right resources to facilities and shifts where they are most needed. Not only does effective workforce management reduce the strain on healthcare workers (and therefore lessen the risk of burnout), it also helps improve patient outcomes.
A key contributor to provider and staff burnout is that tech-facing tasks are often tedious and time-consuming—and the more time a provider has to spend ticking checkboxes, the less time they can spend with each patient. Technology can help automate some of these processes and reduce the burden of data entry, especially in terms of care planning and patient documentation, which means healthcare providers and staff can spend less time staring at a computer screen and more time interacting with patients.
Digital wellness tools
Technology can also be used outside of a clinical or administrative setting, where the focus is not on the patient but on the healthcare workers themselves. The COVID-19 pandemic has placed a significant mental and emotional strain on healthcare workers, and healthcare leaders should use technology to make it easier for healthcare workers to do their jobs and reduce burnout. However, technology can be just as important as a tool to improve workers’ overall quality of life—especially considering the challenges of the past 18 months. Digital wellness tools help reduce the emotional burden on healthcare workers and help them identify their key stress triggers before they manifest themselves in the form of burnout.
There is no such thing as an “ideal cure” for burnout, because the fact is, there is no cure for burnout. Working in healthcare is inherently stressful, and a certain level of burnout is inevitable. But with properly designed and thoughtfully implemented technology solutions, healthcare leaders can minimize the effects of burnout.
If you need help identifying or implementing the right technology solutions for your organization, symplr’s experts can provide a free assessment of your needs and identify the right solutions for your providers and staff.