Become a burnout scholar to prevent, treat burnout in yourself and others

Burnout is a crisis in all healthcare professions, including EMS, and to make it better will take an all-hands-on-deck approach


Vivek Murthy, the surgeon general of the United States, joined Dr. Glaucomflecken, the social media medical humorist and healthcare provider advocate, to discuss the worsening status of burnout in healthcare in a new TikTok video. Though their short discussion was hospital provider focused, their concern about burnout and potential solutions are applicable to EMS providers.  

“Healthcare workers have been pushed to their limit during this pandemic. You’ve all worked so hard caring for others. Now it’s our turn to look out for you and figure out how to take better care of you,” Murthey said, after Dr. Glaucomflecken asked if the surgeon general could run a dialysis machine because the hospital is short on nurses and other healthcare providers.  

“Well, we are getting pizza for lunch,” Dr. Glaucomflecken said in reply. 

“Free food sounds great but burnout is a complex issue that requires us to think more broadly about how we create a healing healthcare system for both patients and healthcare workers.” Murthy said. “That includes creating more time for connection with our patients and each other. We also need to shift to more collaborative models of care.” 

@drglaucomflecken

A message on burnout featuring Dr. Vivek Murthy

♬ original sound - Dr. Glaucomflecken

It’s a good sign that burnout is being taken seriously when the surgeon general, one of the country's top healthcare leaders, collaborates with a TikTok creator to discuss burnout severity, possible contributors and the need for solutions. But a TikTok video only raises awareness and perhaps some eyebrows. Lessening improvement requires data and real action.  


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Levels of burnout in EMS  

The EMS Trend Report has been tracking the self-reported levels of burnout in EMS providers since 2018. The question asks, “Based on your own definition, how would you rate your level of burnout?” 

In 2020 and 2021, just under one-quarter of responders (24%) selected “I have joy in work and no symptoms of burnout. A little more than one-third of respondents (39%) in 2021 reported having "less energy and more stress than I once had, but don’t feel burned out.”  

The remaining 2021 respondents self-identified as “I have one or more symptom of burnout” (25%), “My burnout symptoms are constant, and I frequently feel frustrated at work” (10%) and “I am completely burned out and need to seek help or make major changes” (2%).   

The 2021 results are similar to previous years. Another troubling trend revealed by the EMS Trend Report is that field supervisors report higher levels of burnout than field providers or chiefs and managers.  

Burnout isn’t unique to EMS providers. Anyone in any career can experience burnout, which the World Health Organization included burnout in the International Classification of Diseases (ICD-11) as an occupational phenomenon.  

“Burn-out is a syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed. It is characterized by three dimensions: 

  • feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion; 

  • increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one's job; and 

  • reduced professional efficacy. 

Burn-out refers specifically to phenomena in the occupational context and should not be applied to describe experiences in other areas of life.” 

Burnout is preventable and treatable 

Burnout isn’t a forgone conclusion of volunteering or working in EMS. It’s preventable and treatable. EMS employers and field providers can lessen the occurrence and seriousness of burnout by:  

  • Understanding the signs and symptoms of burnout 

  • Identifying and fixing the underlying causes of burnout 

  • Proactively making changes to prevent burnout from happening 

  • Treating burnout early before it worsens into severe burnout 

By now you’ve likely heard the routine advice for stress management and staving off burnout. Those things include:  

  • Getting 7 hours or more of sleep each day 

  • Eating healthy and drinking plenty of water 

  • Exercising each day 

  • Minimizing use of drugs, alcohol and tobacco 

  • Work a set schedule and a reasonable number of hours each week 

If you are already experiencing burnout, even minor symptoms, become a student of burnout. Apply the same rigor and determination you’ve applied to learning 12-lead ECG interpretation or heart failure treatment to learning about burnout. The emotional toll of working in EMS is much more likely to end your career prematurely than mis-reading a 12-lead. And the likelihood of you making a mistake, getting poor patient satisfaction scores, or missing out on a promotion are much higher if you are burned out.  

Here are a few ideas to start your journey on becoming a burnout scholar. 

Watch 

Read 

Listen 

Please don’t leave because of burnout  

I am hopeful that things won’t get much worse for EMS. We’ve got to be close to the point where the pendulum will start to swing towards full staffing, competent leadership, real-cost funding and appreciative communities. Share with me in the comments or by email the burnout prevention strategies and treatments you’ve found useful. As a leader, what changes have you made to lower burnout risk in your agency? As a provider, what do you need from your supervisor or employer to re-energize and feel less cynical about your work? I look forward to hearing from you.  

Until then, the risk of worsening burnout is real and significant.  

I join U.S. Surgeon General Murthy in saying, “We see you. We appreciate you and we have your back.”   

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