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No one is fond of revisiting what they went through during the pandemic. It was a traumatic, unsettling time for most of us, but especially for healthcare professionals. The world deemed them heroes, and rightfully so.
Working through a world health crisis took not just a physical toll, but an emotional and psychological one that drove hundreds of thousands of healthcare professionals to leave their jobs.
Healthcare workers may have been used to long hours on their feet and the emotional and mental health impacts of working in a care-related role. But not even that could prepare them for what they were going to experience in the pandemic.
Understanding what healthcare professionals endured during the pandemic and why many chose to leave the industry is the first step in creating a healthier, safer industry that’s much more mindful of worker health and wellness.
The World Health Organization reports that at least 3 million deaths can be attributed to the COVID-19 pandemic. Many healthcare professionals have experienced patient deaths pre-pandemic. But this amount in such a short time differentiated the pandemic from a normal day in medicine.
Many healthcare workers had to hold the hand of a dying patient because visitors weren’t allowed during the height of the pandemic. The emotional and psychological toll of this alone was enough for some employees to leave their careers.
If experiencing death in droves wasn’t enough, there was also the fear of contracting COVID-19 themselves. Healthcare professionals were surrounded by patients with the illness, some in direct contact with them.
Being that close to a highly contagious illness every day couldn’t have been anything less than terrifying. Staff also had to worry about bringing something home to their families. This changed the way many healthcare professionals interacted with their families and caused a great deal of distancing.
Simply put, working in healthcare during a crisis is incredibly stressful. People are gravely ill, some dying, you’re being pulled every which way, and you’re not sure what will happen next. That kind of stress impacts how an employee works and the kind of care they give patients.
Not only that, but stress also impacts workplace safety. Accidents and injuries are more likely to happen. Employees are distracted, and that can lead to poor communication and decision-making.
Aside from stress, healthcare professionals were plagued with burnout and multiple other mental health issues. Working long, consecutive shifts caring for sick patients, dealing with their families, coping with a lack of well-being support and resources, and making up for staff shortages caused professionals to burn out during the pandemic, leading many to leave their positions.
Many providers found themselves working over 40 hours per week because of the demand the pandemic put on the industry. We needed them to step up and they did. But the honorable decision to put their all into their jobs during this time cost many healthcare professionals a stable personal life.
For example, single parents in the industry were tasked with finding childcare that could accommodate their irregular, arduous hours. Employees with spouses hardly had time for their significant others. And not that anyone could during this time, but spending time with friends and socializing was definitely out of the question for healthcare employees.
At the end of the day, many of these heroes had to wrap their lives around their jobs, which is the opposite of what anybody wants. An inability to find childcare or other means of support to accommodate a demanding healthcare job resulted in a large group of professionals calling it quits.
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Whether it was the emotional and psychological toll we discussed above or something else that inspired it, many healthcare professionals left the industry during the pandemic and are still doing so after, with about 1 in 5 workers leaving roles since the start of the pandemic.
This may seem like an easy decision to those who aren’t a part of the healthcare industry. But many individuals dreamed of becoming a part of this industry their whole lives and it means more than anything to them to have had the opportunity to carve out a career in it.
Having to walk away from the industry because of what they experienced during the pandemic or because their organizations haven’t stepped up their employee support is way more disheartening and challenging than you might think.
Aside from this, many employees likely struggle with feeling guilty leaving an industry that’s in dire need of talented, committed workers. And don’t forget about the hefty task of transitioning to a new career. This can be incredibly daunting, especially if you’re an older employee who’s spent most of their life in a single career field.
There are challenges for those who stayed in the healthcare industry after the pandemic, but there are just as many challenges for those who left.
Burned-out healthcare workers were all too common during the pandemic and still are. It’s a huge part of the reason why so many employees left the industry.
We don’t know when another health crisis will arise. But it’s so important to put measures in place to combat burnout should it happen so that the toll isn’t so heavy on employees. It’s also crucial to do so just to ensure the demand of healthcare jobs is more manageable.
The responsibility for fighting burnout isn’t solely on the shoulders of employees. Healthcare facilities and the industry as a whole must stand up for worker health and wellness, starting with addressing staff shortages.
Part of the reason healthcare professionals are burnt out is they have to take on huge workloads because their staff is so small. There are more patients to care for than there are professionals to care for them.
Individual healthcare organizations and industry leaders need to make a conscious effort to address staff shortages if they want to reduce burnout. Whether it’s pay, benefits, wellness resources, or something else employees desire, looking for ways to provide these things will help attract top talent and keep them.
Also important is enticing more educators to join the healthcare industry. Many nursing and medical schools have to turn students away because they don’t have enough faculty to teach them. They’re sending the very people we need in the industry away.
To regrow the industry and create a new wave of healthcare professionals, individuals first have to attend school. So, the industry must focus on getting more educators to teach them. Then, more people can join the industry and put a stop to the staff shortage issue.
Even if healthcare facilities and the industry are slow to make changes that reduce employee burnout, employees can step up for themselves and advocate for their health and wellness needs. In fact, it’s a must if they want to prevent burnout.
If you’re a healthcare professional, advocating for yourself should start before you accept a position. Ask questions about health and wellness resources and the company’s commitment to the physical, emotional, and psychological safety of its employees during the application process and interviews.
Once you’ve accepted a position at a healthcare facility, speaking up about and taking care of your needs becomes even more important. Additionally, familiarize yourself with the health and wellness resources available to you and use them often.
Developing great relationships with your direct and upper management team is also critical. You want to be able to go to them when you’re having issues and need to make changes to your schedule or responsibilities. Doing so will help make for a healthier work-life balance.
Being the loudest advocate for yourself in the room is a good way to guarantee a work experience that doesn’t prompt burnout.
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Well, you aren't along on this one! You’ve done your best to actively combat burnout and address the other issues you’re having with your job, but there isn’t enough change happening to convince you to stay. If you’re seriously considering leaving the industry, make sure it’s the right decision by debating three important topics and questions:
As we’ve touched on so many times in this article, any role in the healthcare industry can be physically, mentally, and emotionally taxing. There’s never a time when you should continue to work in a position that’s harming your holistic health.
Only you know what your limit is, so ensure you take the time to question this and be honest with yourself.
Sometimes, it isn’t the industry that’s making you want to leave, it’s the organization you work for. Maybe they aren’t providing the health and wellness resources you need. Maybe your manager is less than understanding and compassionate. Maybe you’re forced to work long hours on an unaccommodating schedule.
Iron out whether it’s the healthcare industry you want to get away from or the facility you work for. A new organization might be all you need to renew your energy and dedication to the industry.
If you’re having a hard time, have you talked to your manager or another leader about it yet? Sometimes, managers want to support their employees, they just need to know that you need it and what kind.
Allow your management team to make things right by engaging in a conversation about what’s not working and how they can better support you. If after a few of these discussions nothing changes, it may be a good decision to move on.
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Despite the trauma and difficulties experienced during the pandemic, many are still hoping to carve out a career in healthcare. We applaud this noble decision and only request that you’re mindful of your health and well-being as you search for your ideal role.
Research all job roles, career paths and profiles, career review sites (ex: Glassdoor), and exploratory articles that will help you land the right role that fits you, at a company that values your health and well-being.
There are so many healthcare jobs available today with the shortage dilemma. You aren’t limited to being a doctor, surgeon, or nurse. Choosing a job that fits who you are, your lifestyle, and what you desire in a healthcare role is critical to ensuring it doesn’t burn you out in the long run. It’ll also inspire you to stay in your career long-term.
Sit down and list which healthcare jobs interest you and why. Determine what kind of education or certifications and skills are necessary to land the role. Also, evaluate your potential responsibilities to make sure they’re doable.
This exercise will help you narrow down the positions that are perfect for you.
Once you’ve landed on a healthcare role to pursue and have found some vacant positions, research the organizations offering them in depth. Comb through the company website and social media presence. See what kind of reviews current and former employees are leaving.
Look for information on the organization’s commitment to employee health and wellness, in particular. Find out what kind of resources and benefits they offer. And don’t be afraid to ask questions during interviews around "what's in it for you and benefits you as an employee of the organization?"
There is no question that an employee's health and well-being is the key to high-quality care, retention, and happiness. Healthcare jobs are demanding, no doubt. But the goal of the industry should be to ensure this doesn’t take a negative toll on employees. But, one thing is for sure, things need to change quickly to avoid a potential disaster within 5 short years.