The risks of burnout for patients, and how tech can help

Jim Wetekamp, CEO of Riskonnect, explains how tech can help reduce burnout among healthcare staff

Healthcare professionals around the world are experiencing higher levels of burnout than ever before due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Here Jim Wetekamp, CEO of enterprise risk management provider Riskonnect, tells us how employers can address this. 

How has COVID-19 impacted the issue of burnout among healthcare workers? 

Burnout among healthcare workers was a chronic condition long before the arrival of COVID-19. This certainly spiked during the pandemic, approaching twice the rate of other industries.  At the same time, I believe that employee burnout significantly increased in other industries, bringing greater awareness of – and hopefully attention to – the issue more broadly. 

There have been efforts to address employee burnout both in and out of healthcare, but what we’re beginning to see is a more holistic and pre-emptive focus on maintaining and improving employee wellness that has accelerated as a result of the pandemic. COVID-19 served as a clear wake up call to the pervasiveness and impact of burnout. Three in ten healthcare workers are considering leaving the profession due to the emotional drain caused by the pandemic.

What risks does burnout create? 

Burnout risk starts with staff members, leaving them susceptible to becoming physically and mentally ill. In turn, physically or mentally ill caregivers put patients at risk. Nurse burnout is associated with increases in patient mortality and hospital-associated infections. Physicians experiencing burnout are twice as likely to self-report a medical error. Burned-out surgeons commit more serious medical errors, and burned-out medical students are more likely to engage in dishonest clinical behaviours and alcohol abuse.

In too many cases, this has created a tragic spiral: Burnout causes safety events, which add additional stress to involved staff as well as the broader care team, ultimately leading to further burnout and additional patient-safety risks. 

At the institutional level, this cycle leads to lower job satisfaction and greater employee turnover, which reduces productivity and exacerbates the already growing shortage of physicians and nurses. And staffing shortages are contributing factors for increased risks to patient safety.

How can employers address this? 

Beyond the obvious motivator of improving patient safety, organisations will want to address employee burnout because it negatively impacts the patient experience. 

Addressing employee burnout can have other benefits as well. Disengaged employees cost organisations roughly 34% of their annual salary. The average cost to replace an employee who quits due to workplace stress is $4,129 per new hire. Employers can mitigate these risks to productivity and retention by creating an environment that proactively identifies burnout and addresses disengagement early.

Low staffing levels are also a top contributor to burnout. Adding staff can actually be cheaper than the cost of low productivity and staff turnover. 

As leaders, we have to be open to the fact that employee burnout can exist within our organisations and address it honestly. Just starting the conversation about employee stress and burnout can help employees feel heard. And ensuring that the entire leadership team – not just human resources – is attuned to the issue can help foster a culture where employees feel appreciated, engaged, and that there is adequate recognition of both their contributions and their need to balance work with other life priorities. 

What role can technology play here? 

Technology can’t create the kind of culture I just described, but it can help facilitate the activities and interactions that operationalise it.  

Risk reporting and staying in tune with staff needs are top ways healthcare providers can boost patient safety. An organisational culture where leadership and practitioners openly discuss concerns and solutions around workload, mental health, error rates, and more, enables organisations to get ahead of larger burnout and patient-safety issues.

Coming back to patient safety, employees who report adverse events, near misses, good catches, and unsafe conditions want to know that their efforts matter and are making a difference. You can start by making sure your reporting system is intuitive and accessible. Beyond that, great technology can provide meaningful feedback to event reporters. 

The best technology can aggregate data on identified issues, actions taken, and the impact of those interventions on performance improvement -- and make the data available to everyone in the organisation, from the C-suite to frontline clinicians and other employees.

Integrated risk management technology is designed to expand and improve an organisation’s approach to all the risks it faces. Software that integrates the traditionally siloed risk management function into one comprehensive solution gives leadership the ability to easily see the connections between risks – like employee productivity, staff shortages, and patient-safety events. This visibility also helps leaders better understand the causal and contributory factors to risks, as well as interdependencies, to quickly identify effective and sustainable improvements. 


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