Why doctor and nurse burnout is everybody's business

You're undoubtedly familiar with the term "burnout," but did you know that "occupational burnout" is an actual syndrome? According to the World Health Organization, it's caused by "chronic stress in the workplace." Those who have it are not only exhausted, but less effective at work. For doctors and nurses, it's serious business, because it can translate to inferior health care and higher risk of medical errors.

Health care professionals have always suffered high rates of burnout due to heavy workloads, confronting life and death situations, and lack of support from health care systems. But after a solid year of battling COVID-19, it's become epidemic - and it impacts all of us.

<h3 class="leadin">Health care is high-stress work

According to a recent survey, 62% of nurses and 42% of doctors report feeling intense COVID-related burnout - higher frequencies than pre-COVID.

They're exhausted from working 12 hours shifts, caring for too many patients, and dealing with multiple deaths on a daily basis. In fact, with families banned from visiting, nurses are often the ones holding patients' hands as they take their last breaths.

Even for trained professionals, the impact is profound. No wonder so many health care professionals are retiring early or changing professions!

Furthermore, more than 3,300 health care professionals have died from COVID since last March. Compound that with the fact that both doctors and nurses commit suicide at higher rates than other professions, and we have a very real problem.

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Health care workers are under an intense amount of stress. More than 3,300 health care professionals have died from COVID since last March. Stock Photo

How we all can help

Obviously, changes need to be made to U.S. health care system, which too often prizes profits over people.

Right now, Congress is considering a bill - the Dr. Lorna Breen Health Care Provider Protection Act - aimed at preventing medical burnout. Named for an ER physician who took her life last year at COVID's peak in New York City, the bill would fund research, training and the development of preventive programs designed to improve mental health among health care workers.

In the meantime, there are things each of us can do to ease the stress we place on our doctors and nurses:

• Practice good COVID-19 prevention - Wear a mask. Socially distance. Get a vaccine when it's your turn. Do everything you can to stay healthy - for you and for them.

• Be courteous to your health care providers - Even when you're frustrated, be patient and polite. Remember, they are dealing with many, many patients and problems.

• Be prepared - Plan for your doctors' appointments. Write down your questions in advance; bring an updated list of your medications. Be ready to address your priorities without a lot of chitchat.

• Be alert - Even the best doctors and nurses make mistakes under pressure. Pay attention, do your research and politely question things that seem off. Make it easy for them to do their job well by educating yourself … and advocating for yourself!

• Teri Dreher is a board-certified patient advocate. A critical care nurse for 30+ years, she is founder of NShore Patient Advocates ( She recently created a three-month training course for nurses who wish to become patient advocates ( You can contact her at (312) 788-2640.

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