Burnout Threatens to Undermine Clinical Trial Workforce Productivity

Study: 55% of Clinical Research Team Members Feel Burned Out Since COVID-Induced Move to Remote Operations

Are you a manager of a remote clinical trial workforce? Are you concerned about burning its members out under current conditions? According to a new study led by the Tufts Center for the Study of Drug Development (CSDD), you probably should be.

The new study found more than half (55%) of members of clinical research teams involved in the development of new drugs reported feeling more professionally burned out since the COVID-19 pandemic forced most operations in a remote direction. Nearly as many (42%) were concerned about “deteriorated connections” with colleagues.

“I’m a little surprised at how high that burnout number is,” said Mary Jo Lamberti, PhD, research assistant professor and associate director at Tufts CSDD, and a lead author of the new study. “The clinical trial industry needs to address this, so it doesn’t get worse.”

Lamberti cited frequency of remote meetings as one likely culprit for the burnout. Noting that many of the meetings are likely necessary, she suggested clinical workforce leaders think long and hard about it before they casually set up yet another Zoom call. “There’s a so-called Zoom fatigue, and clinical trial leaders need to address that concern,” she said.

Burnout issues aside, the report was full of positive news. For example, despite having to shift to remote operating models quickly and sometimes under duress, 43% of respondents reported that productivity is unchanged since the pandemic began and 35% reported that their productivity has increased.

With input from 26 public and private sector organizations, Tufts CSDD and Gates MRI developed an online survey asking clinical research team members across the globe about their experiences with remote work. A total of 344 professionals responded to the survey in early 2021.

Clinical research professionals from more than 50 countries across five continents responded, with more than half living in the U.S. or Canada. Sixty percent of respondents work in pharmaceutical/biotechnical companies, 22% in contract research organizations (CROs) or vendor companies, 14% at academic medical centers or research institutions, and 4% at other types of organizations, such as government agencies, nonprofits, and patient advocacy groups.

Study results, highlighted in the September/October Tufts CSDD Impact Report, also include the following:

  • An overwhelming majority of clinical research professionals were satisfied with their organization’s transition to remote work, with 93% saying they were “very” or “somewhat” satisfied with the responsiveness and preparedness of their organizations.
  • Most professionals report that their organizations provided sufficient resources to enable remote work. The vast majority of respondents received computing and communications support. Notable gaps included paid access to high-speed internet and external computer monitors.
  • Burnout was attributed to frequency of virtual meetings. Burnout was also attributed to added work responsibilities, variability and uncertainty in work demands, restlessness, and one’s physical environment.
  • Most respondents want to see remote work continue in the future. The majority (86%) indicated support for their organization’s current remote model and nearly 90% reported that they were “extremely” or “somewhat” likely to support a mostly remote work model post-pandemic.

Lamberti and team noticed other interesting wrinkles in the data. For example, clinical trial practitioners in the U.S. and Canada generally reported receiving more support when setting up remote work than did colleagues in the rest of the world, including Europe and the United Kingdom. “We didn’t get too granular with those results, but it’s an interesting finding,” she said.

In addition, Lamberti noted that academic medical centers and similar research organizations reported receiving less remote set-up support than counterparts in pharmaceutical firms, biotechnology companies, and CROs. That first group might need more support, especially if COVID-19 continues to force more remote work in different parts of the country as the virus ebbs and flows.

Author: Michael Causey