After COVID crisis: Burnout in Healthcare Workers

(Credit: Unsplash)

This article was exclusively written for The European Sting by Ms. Laila Kazem, a fifth year medical student from Kuwait, currently studying at Kuwait University. She is affiliated to the International Federation of Medical Students Associations (IFMSA), cordial partner of The Sting. The opinions expressed in this piece belong strictly to the writers and do not necessarily reflect IFMSA’s view on the topic, nor The European Sting’s one.

More than three years ago on March 11, 2020, the World Health organization (WHO) “rung the alarm bell loud and clear”, and the novel coronavirus outbreak was declared a global pandemic. As the COVID-19 pandemic pushed most of society to retreat back into the safety of their homes, healthcare workers remained at the frontlines. While battling an unprecedented surge of cases, they concurrently dealt with social isolation and self-quarantine, strenuous hours, and staffing and equipment shortages. The mixture of workplace stress factors and personal fears placed an enormous psychological toll on healthcare teams. 

A systemic review looking back on the pandemic found that over half of healthcare personnel worldwide experienced burnout. Burnout is a psychological syndrome that arises in response to continuous work-related stress, and is common in workplaces where employees spend more time supporting others. First described by psychoanalyst Freudenberger in 1974, Maslach and Jackson further conceptualized Burnout Syndrome (BS) to encompass three dimensions: emotional exhaustion, depersonalization, and loss of personal accomplishment. 

“Wasn’t everyone mentally affected?” one may ask. The answer, in fact, is yes; studies indicate that anxiety and stress levels increased significantly among people during the pandemic. However, with greater responsibility comes greater risk. Health-worker burnout can directly affect the patients whom they provide care to. There is a possibility of increased medical errors and negligence, patient dissatisfaction, and increased team turnover, which worsens already existing staff shortages. Aside from professional consequences, the personal impact of burnout is just as profound. Lower quality of life, depression and risk of suicide, and abuse of alcohol by physicians are all among the possible side-effects of this debilitating syndrome. 

The numbers became more alarming as we progressed through the pandemic. Results of a survey published in Mayo Clinic Proceedings in 2022 showed that 63 percent of physicians reported at least one symptom of burnout, and only 30 percent felt satisfied with their work-life balance. Today, as the world moves on from the pandemic, healthcare workers remain severely affected. Many are even experiencing symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD. 

In reality, burnout has plagued healthcare long before the COVID-19 crisis. Healthcare as we know it entails that physicians must endure excruciatingly long work hours, escalating clinical and administrative workloads, and rigorous schedules. We must recognize that burnout is more so a consequence of the systems put in place rather than personal characteristics. The abundance of studies published during and after COVID-19 era revealing sky-high rates of burnout among healthcare workers gave irrefutable evidence that change is needed. Now more than ever, the quality of life of healthcare workers should be taken seriously. Efforts are needed to improve public health infrastructure, mitigate work hours, and provide adequate psychological support to staff. Perhaps the pandemic served to snatch away the veil that was thinly masking this deep-seated issue. 

“Never overestimate the strength of the torchbearer’s arm, for even the strongest arms grow weary.”

  • AJ Darkholme, Rise of the Morningstar
  • About the author
  • Laila Kazem is a fifth year medical student from Kuwait, currently studying at Kuwait University. Apart from being at the top of her class, she takes an active role in student-led initiatives, volunteer activities, and academic endeavors. Her personal interests include photography, art and literature, and cycling. 

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