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The U.S. Faces Health Worker Burnout Crisis

Before the pandemic, health worker burnout was already a substantial issue in the U.S., with 54% of doctors and nurses experiencing burnout. As one might expect, the Covid-19 pandemic has only made the situation worse as it has increased the physical and emotional burdens of healthcare workers. Burnout is a condition of physical or emotional exhaustion, where motivation is lost and most likely results in a period of prolonged frustration. Symptoms of burnout include emotional numbness, a cynical outlook, general fatigue and a lack of creativity and purpose.

The U.S. Surgeon General, Dr. Vivek Murthy, released an advisory in May entitled “Addressing Health Worker Burnout.” The purpose of publishing the advisory was to both bring the general public’s attention to this issue and to convince the country to take action towards increasing support for health workers.

The realities of the current healthcare system are driving an increasing number of healthcare workers to leave the industry early. “COVID-19 has been a uniquely traumatic experience for the healthcare workforce and their families, pushing them past their breaking point,” Murthy wrote in the advisory. 50% of public health workers reported having at least one mental health condition, such as anxiety or depression. 66% of nurses have considered resigning and one in five doctors say they are planning on leaving their profession.

Half a million American nurses are already retiring at the end of the year. Additionally, there is projected to be a shortage of more than 3 million low-wage health workers within the next five years.

Health worker burnout is a crisis in health for all Americans as it will decrease the number of healthcare workers available to Americans. Therefore, receiving care will be more difficult than in the past.

The surgeon general has laid out some specific ways in which burnout can be combatted. Murthy’s recommendations include providing a living wage and paid sick leave for all healthcare workers and reducing their administrative burdens, which often keep workers from spending enough time with patients. Murthy also suggests the development of mental health support services that are specifically tailored for healthcare workers.

With the Association of American Medical Colleges projecting a shortage of 139,000 physicians by 2033, health worker burnout is not an issue that can wait. Tangible actions must be made to improve the conditions of healthcare workers, or the health of the nation will pay the price.

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