Burnout Risk May Be Exacerbated by COVID Crisis

Larry Beresford, MDedge News

November 10, 2020

Editor's note: Find the latest COVID-19 news and guidance in Medscape's Coronavirus Resource Center.

Clarissa Barnes, MD, a hospitalist at Avera McKennan Hospital in Sioux Falls, S.D., and until recently medical director of Avera's LIGHT Program, a wellness-oriented service for doctors, nurse practitioners, and physician assistants, watched the COVID-19 crisis unfold up close in her community and her hospital. Sioux Falls traced its surge of COVID patients to an outbreak at a local meatpacking plant.

Dr Clarissa Barnes

"In the beginning, we didn't know much about the virus and its communicability, although we have since gotten a better handle on that," she said. "We had questions: Should we give patients more fluids – or less? Steroids or not? In my experience as a hospitalist I never had patients die every day on my shift, but that was happening with COVID." The crisis imposed serious stresses on frontline providers, and hospitalists were concerned about personal safety and exposure risk – not just for themselves but for their families.

"The first time I worked on the COVID unit, I moved into the guest room in our home, apart from my husband and our young children," Barnes said. "Ultimately I caught the virus, although I have since recovered." Her experience has highlighted how existing issues of job stress and burnout in hospital medicine have been exacerbated by COVID-19. Even physicians who consider themselves healthy may have little emotional reserve to draw upon in a crisis of this magnitude.

"We are social distancing at work, wearing masks, not eating together with our colleagues – with less camaraderie and social support than we used to have," she said. "I feel exhausted and there's no question that my colleagues and I have sacrificed a lot to deal with the pandemic." Add to that the second front of the COVID-19 crisis, Barnes said, which is "fighting the medical information wars, trying to correct misinformation put out there by people. Physicians who have been on the front lines of the pandemic know how demoralizing it can be to have people negate your first-hand experience."

The situation has gotten better in Sioux Falls, Barnes said, although cases have started rising in the state again. The stress, while not gone, is reduced. For some doctors, "COVID reminded us of why we do what we do. Some of the usual bureaucratic requirements were set aside and we could focus on what our patients needed and how to take care of them."

Taking Job Stress Seriously

Tiffani Panek, MA, SFHM, CLHM, administrator of the division of hospital medicine at Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center in Baltimore, said job stress is a major issue for hospitalist groups.

Tiffani Panek

"We take it seriously here, and use a survey tool to measure morale in our group annually," she said. "So far, knock on wood, Baltimore has not been one of the big hot spots, but we've definitely had waves of COVID patients."

The Bayview hospitalist group has a diversified set of leaders, including a wellness director. "They're always checking up on our people, keeping an eye on those who are most vulnerable. One of the stressors we hadn't thought about before was for our people who live alone. With the isolation and lockdown, they haven't been able to socialize, so we've made direct outreach, asking people how they were doing," Panek said. "People know we've got their back – professionally and personally. They know, if there's something we can do to help, we will do it."

Bayview Medical Center has COVID-specific units and non-COVID units, and has tried to rotate hospitalist assignments because more than a couple days in a row spent wearing full personal protective equipment (PPE) is exhausting, Panek said. The group also allocated a respite room just outside the biocontainment unit, with a computer and opportunities for providers to just sit and take a breather – with appropriate social distancing. "It's not fancy, but you just have to wear a mask, not full PPE."

The Hopkins hospitalist group's wellness director, Catherine Washburn, MD, also a working hospitalist, said providers are exhausted, and trying to transition to the new normal is a moving target.

"It's hard for anyone to say what our lives will look like in 6 months," she said. "People in our group have lost family members to COVID, or postponed major life events, like weddings. We acknowledge losses together as a group, and celebrate things worth celebrating, like babies or birthdays."

Greatest COVID Caseload

Joshua Case, MD, hospitalist medical director for 16 acute care hospitals of Northwell Health serving metropolitan New York City and Long Island, said his group's hospitalists and other staff worked incredibly hard during the surge of COVID-19 patients in New York. "Northwell likely cared for more COVID patients than any other health care system in the U.S., if not the world.

Dr Joshua Case

"It's vastly different now. We went from a peak of thousands of cases per day down to about 70-90 new cases a day across our system. We're lucky our system recognized that COVID could be an issue early on, with all of the multifaceted stressors on patient care," Case said. "We've done whatever we could to give people time off, especially as the census started to come down. We freed up as many supportive mental health services as we could, working with the health system's employee assistance program."

Northwell gave out numbers for the psychiatry department, with clinicians available 24/7 for a confidential call, along with outside volunteers and a network of trauma psychologists. "Our system also provided emergency child care for staff, including hospitalists, wherever we could, drawing upon community resources," Case added.

"We recognize that we're all in the same foxhole. That's been a helpful attitude – recognizing that it's okay to be upset in a crisis and to have trouble dealing with what's going on," he said. "We need to acknowledge that some of us are suffering and try to encourage people to face it head on. For a lot of physicians, especially those who were redeployed here from other departments, it was important just to have us ask if they were doing okay."

Brian Schroeder

Brian Schroeder, MHA, FACHE, FHM, assistant vice president for hospital and emergency medicine for Atrium Health, based in Charlotte, N.C., said one of the biggest sources of stress on his staff has been the constant pace of change – whether local hospital protocols, state policies, or guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. "The updating is difficult to keep up with. A lot of our physicians get worried and anxious that they're not following the latest guidelines or correctly doing what they should be doing to care for COVID patients. One thing we've done to alleviate some of that fear and anxiety is through weekly huddles with our hospital teams, focusing on changes relevant to their work. We also have weekly 'all-hands' meetings for our 250 providers across 13 acute and four postacute facilities."

Before COVID, it was difficult to get everyone together as one big group from hospitals up to 5 hours apart, but with the Microsoft Teams platform, they can all meet together.

"At the height of the pandemic, we'd convene weekly and share national statistics, organizational statistics, testing updates, changes to protocols," Schroeder said. As the pace of change has slowed, these meetings were cut back to monthly. "Our physicians feel we are passing on information as soon as we get it. They know we'll always tell them what we know."

Dr Sarah Richards

Sarah Richards, MD, assistant professor of internal medicine at the University of Nebraska, Omaha, who heads the Society of Hospital Medicine's Well-Being Task Force, formed to address staff stress in the COVID environment, said there are things that health care systems can do to help mitigate job stress and burnout. But broader issues may need to be addressed at a national level. "SHM is trying to understand work-related stress – and to identify resources that could support doctors, so they can spend more of their time doing what they enjoy most, which is taking care of patients," she said.

"We also recognize that people have had very different experiences, depending on geography, and at the individual level stressors are experienced very differently," Richard noted. "One of the most common stressors we've heard from doctors is the challenge of caring for patients who are lonely and isolated in their hospital rooms, suffering and dying in new ways. In low-incidence areas, doctors are expressing guilt because they aren't under as much stress as their colleagues. In high-incidence areas, doctors are already experiencing posttraumatic stress disorder."

SHM's Well-Being Task Force is working on a tool to help normalize these stressors and encourage open conversations about mental health issues. A guide called "HM COVID Check-in Guide for Self & Peers" is designed to help hospitalists break the culture of silence around well-being and burnout during COVID-19 and how people are handling and processing the pandemic experience. It is expected to be completed later this year, Richards said. Other SHM projects and resources for staff support are also in the works.

The Impact on Women Doctors

In a recent Journal of Hospital Medicine article entitled "Collateral Damage: How COVID-19 is Adversely Impacting Women Physicians," hospitalist Yemisi Jones, MD, medical director of continuing medical education at Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center, and colleagues argue that preexisting gender inequities in compensation, academic rank and leadership positions for physicians have made the COVID-19 crisis even more burdensome on female hospitalists.1

Dr Yemisi Jones

"Increased childcare and schooling obligations, coupled with disproportionate household responsibilities and an inability to work from home, will likely result in female hospitalists struggling to meet family needs while pandemic-related work responsibilities are ramping up," they write. COVID may intensify workplace inequalities, with a lack of recognition of the undue strain that group policies place on women.

"Often women suffer in silence," said coauthor Jennifer O'Toole, MD, MEd, director of education in the division of hospital medicine at Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center and program director of the internal medicine–pediatrics residency. "We are not always the best self-advocates, although many of us are working on that."

Dr Jennifer O'Toole

When women in hospital medicine take leadership roles, these often tend to involve mutual support activities, taking care of colleagues, and promoting collaborative work environments, Jones added. The stereotypical example is the committee that organizes celebrations when group members get married or have babies.

These activities can take a lot of time, she said. "We need to pay attention to that kind of role in our groups, because it's important to the cohesiveness of the group. But it often goes unrecognized and doesn't translate into the currency of promotion and leadership in medicine. When women go for promotions in the future, how will what happened during the COVID crisis impact their opportunities?"

What is the answer to overcoming these systemic inequities? Start with making sure women are part of the leadership team, with responsibilities for group policies, schedules, and other important decisions. "Look at your group's leadership – particularly the higher positions. If it's not diverse, ask why. 'What is it about the structure of our group?' Make a more concerted effort in your recruitment and retention," Jones said.

The JHM article also recommends closely monitoring the direct and indirect effects of COVID-19 on female hospitalists, inquiring specifically about the needs of women in the organization, and ensuring that diversity, inclusion, and equity efforts are not suspended during the pandemic. Gender-based disparities in pay also need a closer look, and not just one time but reviewed periodically and adjusted accordingly.

Mentoring for early career women is important, but more so is sponsorship – someone in a high-level leadership role in the group sponsoring women who are rising up the career ladder, O'Toole said. "Professional women tend to be overmentored and undersponsored."

What Are the Answers?

Ultimately, listening is key to try to help people get through the pandemic, Washburn said. "People become burned out when they feel leadership doesn't understand their needs or doesn't hear their concerns. Our group leaders all do clinical work, so they are seen as one of us. They try very hard; they have listening ears. But listening is just the first step. Next step is to work creatively to get the identified needs met."

A few years ago, Johns Hopkins developed training in enhanced communication in health care for all hospital providers, including nurses and doctors, encouraging them to get trained in how to actively listen and address their patients' emotional and social experiences as well as disease, Washburn explained. Learning how to listen better to patients can enhance skills at listening to colleagues, and vice versa. "We recognize the importance of better communication – for reducing sentinel events in the hospital and also for preventing staff burnout."

Barnes also does physician coaching, and says a lot of that work is helping people achieve clarity on their core values. "Healing patients is a core identify for physicians; we want to take care of people. But other things can get in the way of that, and hospitalist groups can work at minimizing those barriers. We also need to learn, as hospitalists, that we work in a group. You need to be creative in how you do your team building, especially now, when you can no longer get together for dinner. Whatever it is, how do we bring our team back together? The biggest source of support for many hospitalists, beyond their family, is the group."

Case said there is a longer-term need to study the root causes of burnout in hospitalists and to identify the issues that cause job stress. "What is modifiable? How can we tackle it? I see that as big part of my job every day. Being a physician is hard enough as it is. Let's work to resolve those issues that add needlessly to the stress."

"I think the pandemic brought a magnifying glass to how important a concern staff stress is," Panek said. Resilience is important.

"We were working in our group on creating a culture that values trust and transparency, and then the COVID crisis hit," she said. "But you can still keep working on those things. We would not have been as good or as positive as we were in managing this crisis without that preexisting culture to draw upon. We always said it was important. Now we know that's true."


1. Jones Y et al. Collateral Damage: How COVID-19 Is Adversely Impacting Women Physicians. J Hosp Med. 2020 August;15(8):507-9.

This article originally appeared on The Hospitalist, an official publication of the Society of Hospital Medicine.


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