Capacity to Change Can Reduce Healthcare Workforce Burnout

Dr. Debora Goldberg, George Mason University (Photo Credit: George Mason University)

Even before the pandemic, burnout among healthcare professionals was a pervasive public health concern, with some studies reporting burnout in more than 50% of clinicians. During the COVID-19 pandemic, healthcare professionals are required to work even longer hours in high-stress situations. Understanding causes of burnout and factors that can protect against it can help improve quality of life for the healthcare workforce and quality of care for patients.

New research by faculty in George Mason University’s College of Health and Human Services found that healthcare professionals with a greater personal ability to respond to change experienced lower rates of burnout when their work environments offered strong communication, teamwork, and leadership support. This is one of the first studies to look at both individual response to change and organizational capacity for change, and how these factors affect burnout among healthcare professionals.

Dr. Debora Goldberg led the study published in the Journal of General Internal Medicine. Goldberg is an expert in primary care practice transformation, patient experience, and care for the underserved, with her current and upcoming research focused on workplace health and wellbeing.

“We know that healthcare work environments and job demands have a profound effect on the health and well-being of those delivering care, and they may even influence the quality of healthcare received by patients,” explains Goldberg. “Especially as our healthcare professionals and systems are being pushed to the limit in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, it is imperative that we are more aware of the influences of the work environment and job demands on healthcare professionals’ health and well-being.”

Goldberg and colleagues surveyed 1,279 individuals in 154 primary care practices in Virginia. They measured the practices’ capacity for change, individuals’ change readiness, hours worked per week, and burnout. Participants were part of the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality Heart of Virginia Healthcare collaborative.

Consistent with their earlier work, the researchers found that providers were more likely to report burnout (25.5%) than other professionals (19.9% of clinical support staff, 17.5% of administrative staff). Among these three types of healthcare professionals, both practice and individual factors were related to levels of burnout. Lower levels of burnout were reported among those who had higher scores for individual response to change as well as practices that had higher organizational capacity for change. As the change capacity of the practice increased, burnout in healthcare professionals decreased. As healthcare professionals had more positive responses to change, burnout decreased.

Higher levels of burnout were reported among those who worked more hours per week, were part of a larger practice (more than 10 clinicians), or were part of a single specialty practice.

“We found that the capacity of the practice to change influenced the relationship between individual response to change and burnout,” added Goldberg. “Therefore, we recommend that physician practices and healthcare systems implement initiatives to reduce burnout by creating positive work environments through interprofessional teamwork, employee engagement, and enhanced communication.”

Edited by Gary Cramer