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11 Oct 2021

Blog – Katharine Barnard-Kelly, Professor of Health Psychology, Southern Health NHS Foundation Trust and Chief Science Officer, Spotlight-AQ

Blog – Katharine Barnard-Kelly, Professor of Health Psychology, Southern Health NHS Foundation Trust and Chief Science Officer, Spotlight-AQ

Healthcare Professional Burnout – It’s Not OK and You Are Good Enough!

Working in healthcare has always had its challenges as well as its rewards. It’s a trade-off like any other job. Yet perhaps it’s never been quite so challenging as it is now. 

Burnout amongst HCPs is a huge issue affecting healthcare practice, safety, and quality of care. Looking to the States it is estimated that more than half of US doctors suffer from substantial symptoms of burnout.  In fact, burnout among doctors in the US is almost twice as prevalent as US workers in other fields. Seriously – almost ANY other job!  The worrying thing about this statistic is that this data was published in 2018 BEFORE anyone had even heard of COVID-19 or the devastation that it would bring.

It’s not just doctors that are struggling to cope. Nurses also experience similarly high levels of burnout and depression. Approximately 43 per cent report high degrees of emotional exhaustion, again data from pre-COVID times. As COVID-19 ravaged through society and put unprecedented pressure on healthcare systems and healthcare workers in ways that were unimaginable beforehand, it also meant less time with patients, a reduced ability to deliver care, uncertainty around routines and, perhaps most profoundly, a loss of the human touch of medicine that is so important in this caring profession.

The thing is, however, that taking COVID-19 out of the equation, HCP burnout represents a major problem in a number of different ways, not all of which are immediately obvious. Believing that COVID-19 will eventually go away and everything will be fine simply doesn’t cut it. Firstly, there is a significant correlation between a doctor's degree of depersonalisation and patient satisfaction with their hospital care. In addition, there is a significant correlation between a doctor's job satisfaction and patient satisfaction and patient-reported adherence to medical advice. Unhappy doctors have dissatisfied patients who pay less attention to the advice they are given.  It doesn’t stop there. Healthcare professional burnout is independently associated with job dissatisfaction and increasing numbers of doctors plan to leave practice for reasons other than retirement. So at a time when there has never been a greater need for doctors and continuing high numbers of patients at all levels of illness severity, there is also increasing pressure on already limited resources.

It’s not just about healthcare and patients though. The grim reality is that these doctors and nurses are experiencing awful personal consequences of burnout that are often hidden from view. These include a 25 per cent increased odds of alcohol abuse and 200 per cent increased odds of suicidal thoughts. Burnout is real and extremely damaging to both healthcare professional personal well-being, to patient care and to healthcare systems through impending staff shortages. 

Your best IS good enough

Never has the expression ‘be kind to yourself’ been more relevant. Knowing the power as well as the limitations of the job is extremely important. Self-compassion is important not only for one’s own mental health but also so that it is possible to function professionally. Being aware of our emotions and frank about what we are feeling is crucial in times of confusion and stress.  Knowing that your best IS good enough and letting go of the things that are simply out of your control is so important. Being kind not only to yourself but to others can help in getting through the tough times. Focus on what is within your control and where your power lies and recognise the rest is just noise. Most of all, think of one thing that makes you smile a HUGE heartfelt smile, no matter how big or small that thing is. You have the power to spread a smile round the whole world. When you smile a truly heartfelt smile, it makes other people smile. When they smile, that feeling gets passed on and on until one day, when you most need it, someone will smile at you and bring your smile home.

If you need help or support:

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is not uncommon among healthcare workers and COVID-19 has been linked to PTSD in healthcare workers.

Seek help if feelings persist, including anxiety, stress, exhaustion, anger, fear, panic, poor sleep, avoidance behaviours, dissociation, relationship problems (work or home).

Useful links: (@beyondblue) (@LifelineAust)

Katharine Barnard-Kelly PhD is a Visiting Professor of Health Psychology at Southern Health NHS Foundation Trust. She is a well-respected expert globally and has published over 230 scientific academic journals.  Katharine is also the Chief Science Officer of Spotlight-AQ, a platform designed to reduce healthcare professional burden in routine diabetes care.  Check it out at or email Katharine for more details:

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