Healthcare providers including physicians, nurse practitioners, and physician assistants are susceptible to professional burnout. Since 1970, when burnout was first described in scientific literature, thousands of conceptual papers and empirical studies have investigated this multifaceted phenomenon. In 2007, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services declared burnout a major problem resulting in poor retention of competent healthcare professionals, and it was then that burnout was officially described as an occupational hazard.
Unfortunately, most healthcare organizations invest few resources into preventing or treating burnout, and many administrators and executives lack fundamental education on this topic. This article will investigate the concept of burnout, discuss the scope of the problem, and recommend strategies for both individuals and organizations to manage its effects.
A healthcare provider’s chronic exposure to patients in distress can result in conditions known as compassion fatigue, secondary traumatic stress, or vicarious trauma, all of which can lead to a syndrome called professional burnout. The process of “burning out” refers to a progressive state that occurs through the cumulative impact of both empathizing with other’s suffering and being committed to their recovery.
Scientific research has demonstrated that professional burnout encompasses three symptom dimensions: (1) emotional exhaustion, (2) depersonalization, and (3) reduced personal accomplishment. Overall, the symptoms of professional burnout resemble those of post-traumatic stress disorder and can also include intrusive thoughts, nightmares associated with work, insomnia, chronic irritability, fatigue, difficulty concentrating, avoidance of patients or work events, hypervigilance, and angry outbursts. These symptoms can lead to serious personal repercussions for healthcare providers including problematic alcohol use, broken relationships, and suicidal ideation.
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