How Healthcare Professionals Can Successfully Battle Burnout—Even During a Pandemic

COVID-19 has increased the risk of burnout for physicians and other healthcare professionals; learn simple techniques to help avoid this debilitating condition.

Healthcare burnout is not inevitable, even as the COVID-19 pandemic continues on. Learn more about what causes burnout and how you can take steps to prevent it.   

Contributors to burnout among healthcare professionals

Christina Maslach and Susan E. Jackson, both at the University of California, Berkeley, first described burnout in a 1981 Journal of Occupational Behavior article. They defined it as a “syndrome of emotional exhaustion and cynicism.” They explained burnout occurs when healthcare workers deplete their emotional resources. 

Forty years later, clinicians who have been working through the COVID-19 global pandemic can understand this description.

An increasing number of physicians reported feelings of burnout in the Physicians Foundation’s 2020 Survey of America’s Physicians COVID-19 Impact Edition, Part 2, 58 percent up from 40 percent in 2018. COVID’s effects on their employment or practices led about half of the physicians surveyed to report experiencing inappropriate anger, anxiety or tearfulness. Women reported feelings of burnout more often than men, 68 percent to 50 percent.

A 2021 study in Critical Care Medicine reported “overburdening of ICU professionals during an extended period of time,” such as during the COVID-19 pandemic, led to symptoms of burnout. “Working long hours and under conditions of scarcity of staff, time and resources comes at the price of ICU professionals’ mental health.” 

Greg Hammer, MD, a professor at Stanford University School of Medicine in Palo Alto, California, and author of GAIN Without Pain: The Happiness Handbook for Health Care Professionals, recognized the difficulty so many physicians and other healthcare workers are experiencing. So he set out to help them. 

He reported in the book that burnout can lead to people leaving their healthcare professions or stepping away from direct patient care. Burnout also can result in decreases in quality of care and increases in cost.  

Practicing GAIN to find happiness and resilience to burnout

“Although caring for patients with COVID-19 can be exhausting to physicians and other healthcare professionals on the front line, it’s extremely gratifying to make such a big difference in people’s lives,” Hammer said. That leads to the opportunity to experience eudaimonic happiness, arising from service to others.   

“Happiness leads to living a longer, healthier life,” Hammer said. But that often requires “rewiring” the brain, since most people think more about the past or future rather than the present. Mindfulness, staying in the moment, can be learned and is beneficial.   

Hammer developed GAIN, which stands for gratitude, acceptance, intention and nonjudgment, which is a way to practice mindfulness.  

Gratitude requires paying attention to the things one is grateful for and reflecting on the blessings received, Hammer said, instead of taking things for granted. Even in the most stressful of times, opportunities for gratitude exist. Hammer suggested constantly looking for the good in daily experiences. Physicians can appreciate one’s health, abilities or loving family. Doing so will improve personal resilience. 

Hammer recommends people write down in a journal three things they are grateful for as they prepare for bed. It takes little time, yet people sleep better and are happier, with a positivity bias.  

Acceptance refers to not struggling against chronic pain, anxiety or other negative things. It does not mean being apathetic, but rather actively practicing acceptance of those things one cannot change. Pain and suffering is part of life, and healthcare professionals must accept it. Resisting can magnify the suffering.  

Intention sets a purpose for the moment. People can decide how to think or act. Intention is a process, not a goal or destination.   

“We have to live our lives with purpose and intention,” Hammer said.  

Nonjudgement requires acceptance of the things as they are, without categorizing them as good or bad.   

Stepping toward happiness and away from burnout

Start each day with a three-minute meditation. Then, incorporate sleep as a priority, along with healthy eating and exercising.   

Hammer recommends noticing one’s breath when entering a patient’s room. Air should enter through the nose, into the chest and out. 

Healthcare professionals should reverse their maladaptive thought processes and think positive thoughts, Hammer said. 

Take small steps for steady progress over time. Compassion for oneself and others is essential and will lead to greater happiness. 

Happiness is possible. One has to make the choice and take the GAIN steps. Hammer encourages everyone to give it a 30-day trial. 

“Many health care professionals have been pleasantly surprised by the transformation that GAIN has produced for them in just a few weeks,” Hammer concludes in his book. “An antidote to burnout, GAIN buffers us from stress and builds resilience.” 

Ready for a new perspective on work? Staff Care has part-time and full-time locum tenens opportunities across the U.S. for physicians and advanced practitioners. 

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