CDC Unveils Mental Health Protection Plan for Healthcare Workers

Megan Brooks

November 19, 2021

Federal health officials have outlined a five-part plan to improve and protect the mental health and well-being of America's healthcare workers (HCWs) and create sustainable change for the next generation of HCWs.

"It's long past time for us to care for the people who care for all of us and address burnout in our healthcare workers," US Surgeon General Vivek Murthy, MD, said during a webinar hosted by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), part of the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

"My hope is that going forward, we will be able to embark on this journey together to create a healthcare system, a healthcare environment, a country where we can not only provide extraordinary care to all those who need it, but where we can take good care of those who have sacrificed so much and make sure that they are well," Murthy said.

Burnout Is Not Selective

There are 20 million HCWs in the United States and no one is immune from burnout, said NIOSH Director John Howard, MD.

He noted that from June through September of 2020 — the height of the COVID-19 pandemic — 93% of HCWs experienced some degree of stress, with 22% reporting moderate depression and posttraumatic stress disorder.

Looking at subsets of HCWs, a recent survey showed that 1 in 5 nurses contemplated leaving the profession because of insufficient staffing, intensity of workload, emotional and physical toll of the job, and lack of support, Howard noted.

Physician burnout was a significant issue even before the pandemic, with about 79% of physicians reporting burnout. In the fall of 2020, 69% reported depression and "a very alarming figure" of 13% reported having thoughts of suicide, Howard said.

Women in healthcare jobs are especially vulnerable to burnout; 76% of healthcare jobs are held by women and 64% of physicians that feel burned-out are women, according to federal data. 

"We have significant work to do in shoring up the safety and health of women in healthcare," Howard said.

Mental health is also suffering among local and state public health workers. In a recent CDC survey of 26,000 of these workers, 53% reported symptoms of at least one mental health condition in the past 2 weeks.

"That is really an alarming proportion of public health workers who are as vital and essential as nurses and doctors are in our healthcare system," Howard said.

Primary Prevention Approach

To tackle the burnout crisis, NIOSH plans to:

  • Take a deep dive into understanding the personal, social, and economic burdens HCWs face on a daily basis

  • Assimilate the evidence and create a repository of best practices, resources, and interventions

  • Partner with key stakeholders, including the American Hospital Association, the American Nurses Association, National Nurses United, the Joint Commission, and

  • Identify and adapt tools for the healthcare workplace that emphasize stress reduction

NIOSH also plans to "generate awareness through a national, multidimensional social marketing campaign to get the word out about stress so healthcare workers don't feel so alone," Howard said.

This five-part plan takes a primary prevention approach to identifying and eliminating risk factors for burnout and stress, he added.

Secondary prevention, "when damage has already been done and you're trying to save a healthcare worker who is suffering from a mental health issue, that's a lot harder than taking a good look at what you can do to organizational practices that lead to healthcare workers stress and burnout," Howard said.

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