7 Ways to Prevent Healthcare Worker Burnout with Better Scheduling

by Katie Sawyer, 8 minutes read
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Healthcare work today is chaotic with increasing patient numbers, short staffing, and crushing unpredictable workloads. So it's no surprise burnout is rampant.

Pre-pandemic, burnout rates oscillated between 20% to 40%, with higher rates in intensive care and emergency medicine units. 

It’s neither good for the workers’ mental health nor for the workplace. Plus, it leaves room for mistakes or medication errors and presents a hazard for patients needing urgent care.

So how can you adapt your clinic to ease the sustained stress health workers face in the new normal? And what measures should you take to deal with the longer-term effects of burnout? 

Read on to find out why healthcare workers burn out and how better scheduling can keep it in check.

What causes healthcare worker burnout?

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The National Academy of Medicine found that at least 50% of caretakers in the medical field report serious signs of burnout — which if left untreated, can lead to poor job performance, high turnover rates, and suicide. 

Gallup reports that 63% of employees who report burnout at work are more likely to take a sick day. Another 13% are less confident in their performance, while 23% are more likely to visit the emergency room.

Here are possible reasons health care workers burn out.

Time pressures and chaotic work conditions

According to the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (AHRQ), time pressures, unfavorable organizational culture, and low control over work pace affect more than half of primary care physicians. 

Some people felt they needed at least 50% more time for physical examination of patients and follow-up appointments than was allotted. 

Smartphones and electronic medical records (EMRs) add to the pressure. Physicians are accessible 24/7, which means their workday almost never ends.

All this unreasonable pressure and deadlines result in lower-quality care from the organizations that burn out their doctors.

AHRQ found primary care doctors do better when they’re not under time stress, have more control over clinical issues, and have a healthy work-life balance.

Dysfunctional workplace dynamics

A recent study of members of Ontario’s Registered Nurses Association found 43% were considering leaving — especially those who felt burned out.  

Favoritism, bias, co-worker mistreatment, and unfair corporate or compensation policies break the trust and psychological bond that makes work meaningful. Gallup found that employees who experience unfair treatment at work are 2.3 times more likely to experience high burnout levels.

Burnout is also prevalent where there’s a culture of poor teamwork — conflict, lack of cooperation, sub-par communication, or peer bullying — and no collaboration practices. In health care, these practices actually save lives.

The opposite is true: Treating employees fairly and respecting them makes them more resilient, happier at work, reduces workplace stress, and manages burnout.

Work overload in a high-stress environment

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Some health care specialties — like intensive care or the emergency department with telemetry — can be more stressful than others. They deal with traumatic injuries, combative patients, high mortality rates, and ethical dilemmas. 

When employees struggle with unmanageable workload, long work hours, and tight deadlines in high-stress work environments, they can quickly shift from optimistic to hopeless.

In contrast, engaged employees with job flexibility report higher wellbeing and work more hours each week.  

No support from management

At its core, burnout happens when management doesn’t address chronic job stressors. But it’s more complicated than just feeling stressed out, exhausted, or overstretched.

Manager support gives workers a psychological hedge so they know they’re covered no matter what. Supportive managers listen to their team members’ needs, help them prepare and develop while encouraging them along the way. 

Without this support, workers feel uninformed, alone, and defensive. In contrast, employees who feel supported experience lower levels of burnout regularly.

Emotional strain from patient care

For healthcare professionals, patient care is one of the most rewarding aspects: They make connections with patients and feel satisfied when they help them get better.

However, workers in the critical or end-of-life care departments grapple with emotional disappointments of lower recovery and higher mortality rates. 

Factors in the work environment like expecting physicians to manage patients that are non-compliant, drug-seeking, or threatening, also increase the risk of burnout. The number of patients per health worker also contributes to higher risks of burnout, with each extra patient increasing that risk by 23%.

How Scheduling Can Help Prevent Burnout

Healthcare facilities don’t have the privilege of managing demand. Plus, understaffing can be a matter of life and death.

Overworked medical staff cannot spare time creating schedules either, especially where there’s no system of employee records or insight into demand. 

With scheduling software, you can tackle understaffing and burnout, empower your team, and improve productivity.

While there’s no one-size-fits-all burnout cure, here’s what you can do about it.

Make flexibility a priority

Health care workers dedicate their days to helping others. But they also have personal obligations, so they need time off to take care of themselves and their families. 

You could recruit new workers to manage shortages, but it’s not sustainable, especially in an already harmful work environment. 

Supporting flexible schedules helps protect your employees from burnout. You can do this by:

  • Providing manageable work hours, appropriate staff-to-patient ratios, workplace safety measures, and adequate time off.

  • Allowing shift swaps so that employees who can’t work their shifts can swap directly with suitable team members.

  • Finding someone to cover extra shifts in case a team member calls in with an emergency like sickness or death.

Flexibility empowers your workers to manage their work-life balance and contributes to better employee retention. Ultimately, it creates better patient outcomes and delivers a stronger bottom line for your company.

Make shifts predictable

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Gone are the days when you spent long hours preparing spreadsheets to schedule employee work hours. It’s outdated and eats up most of your time. 

Modern scheduling software ensures everyone gets an alert when new shifts become available. And, you can post schedules well in advance while factoring in workers’ preferences.

Involve your staff in scheduling

When work-life balance is out of whack, employees quickly develop stress, negative attitudes, and burnout. 

Involving your staff in the scheduling process helps prevent such issues. And, it’s easier to prepare for what’s ahead, so there are no schedule “surprises” since they’re involved in the planning process. 

Ask how they make and communicate schedules in the workplace and make it easier for them to choose when they take their breaks or ask for time off. For example, you can allow nurses to collaborate with nurse managers and staffing offices to create schedules that work for everybody.

Manage the workload

The healthcare sector isn’t exactly known for providing a good work-life balance. The overwhelming load of varied tasks that healthcare workers perform daily is a leading contributor to physical burnout. 

According to Gallup, "Employees who strongly agree that they always have too much to do are 2.2 times more likely to say they experience burnout very often or always at work."

Healthcare workers are more exposed to burnout from the torment of making tough decisions, risk of getting infections, and the pain of losing patients and/or colleagues. 

If your workers consistently do more than they should, review their tasks and consider how to distribute the load around teams. In fact, a survey found that taking as little as 10% off physicians’ task load can cut the odds of burnout by 33%.

To reduce burnout, you can: 

  • Create a one-touch call management team that can resolve incoming patient calls on first touch.

  • Get nurse practitioners to manage physicians’ inboxes when they’re out of the office, so there’s less work at the end of the day

  • Decompress clinic schedules for busier doctors to reduce their work after work. For example, you can remove one appointment in the day and substitute a clinical desktop slot for clerical work.

What to do if your healthcare workers show signs of burnout

As with anything, prevention is better than cure. Here are three changes you can implement that will help healthcare workers tackle burnout. 

Listen to your staff

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Listening may seem like a “soft” activity that may not have any concrete effect. However, Gallup found that 62% of employees whose managers listen are less likely to suffer burnout. 

Here are some things you can do:

  • Create a safe space and allow them to open up or speak if they want to, without expectation. 

  • If you’re comfortable sharing your own vulnerabilities and well-being issues, do it openly and without judgment.

  • Acknowledge that anyone can feel burnout. 

  • Let workers speak without blaming them for their situations or rushing to provide solutions or fixes to their issues.

  • Involve workers in policy-making discussions and let them share their strategies of coping with and potentially preventing burnout.

  • Keep checking in on your workers and don’t be afraid to guide them to a professional or other support options in the organization — if necessary.

Implement support programs

Creating an employee wellness program is a powerful and far-reaching way to combat burnout. Such programs help maintain employees’ well-being through activities in your facilities, one-off events, and more.

Wellness programs help staff cope with the pressures of work while showing them that you care. 

Build mental wellness and resilience in the workplace culture and champion resources for the same in the workplace.

Refer workers to employee assistance programs (EAPs), individual or group therapy sessions, and counseling services in your facility so they can get help whenever they need it. 

Ensure your clinic staff has time for basic needs

Shift work, across different industries, is usually associated with unhealthy eating and obesity. 

Today’s healthcare workers most likely work in facilities that require staffing 24 hours a day and use 10-12-hour shifts for coverage. 

Like the general population, the workers may follow diets low in vegetables, fruits, and whole foods, and high in processed foods. They may be overweight or obese, which increases the risk for several chronic diseases.

Here are several ways to ensure clinic staff gets time for basic needs: 

  • Establish interventions that encourage proper nutrition to promote healthy living and prevent disease.

  • Make sure they have time for eating, bathroom, and other breaks to ease burnout.

  • Give 15-minute breaks for every 4 hours they work and be ready to step in as needed so they can take those breaks.

  • Have a break room that you can convert into a relaxing space where workers can eat and enjoy some time out before getting back to work.

Minimize staff stress

Healthcare workers go the extra mile to care for patients. If they’re exhausted, stressed, and burned out, they can’t provide the quality of care we expect them to.

To prevent burnout, you can turn to an often-overlooked solution: staff scheduling. 

Ready to relieve your healthcare workers and create a better working environment? Try Deputy for free today.

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