Could healthcare worker burnout be the next COVID-19 crisis?

Pandemic burnout

TUCSON, Ariz. (KOLD News 13) - Healthcare workers are needed now more than ever as COVID-19 has spread around the world and University of Arizona researchers fear a nurse and medical provider burnout could be the next COVID-19 crisis.

“I’m burnt out on COVID. I got back here as COVID was hitting,” said Mikki Sullivan, a nurse who worked in COVID-19 units.

Sullivan, who lives in Tucson, is back in Arizona after working on a COVID-19 unit in New Jersey in the spring for a couple of months. During that time, she said she had seen more death in two months than in the more than 20 years of her nursing career.

She recalls a patient, dying alone.

“I kept saying it’s okay, your family is going to be okay, it’s okay to go,” she said. “That stuff stays with you forever.”

Coming back to a spiking Arizona, she hardly got a break, getting back on a COVID Unit just a few weeks later, then working in the ICU and ED.

“I was an emotional wreck when I got back,” she said. “I saw a therapist because of the stress.”

While she is willing to work a COVID-19 unit again, she said many healthcare staff she worked with would not—or would get out of the profession entirely.

“I think a lot of people are going to be emotionally done, but I don’t know about invigorated,” Sullivan said. “I think this is playing a toll on healthcare workers.”

“This all existed before the pandemic,” said Chloe Littzen, MSN, RN, AE-C, Ph.D. Candidate at the UA. “I experienced burnout as a nurse…and that was without a pandemic.”

Littzen is studying the burnout on millennial nurses, those ages 18 to lower 30s. She said the U.S., as of 2020, has 3.9 million nurses, of that one million are above 50 years old. As these nurses retire, there are not as many younger nurses to fill the gap. She said two-thirds of millennial nurses leave the profession within five years.

“We’re facing a downstream effect of this…five years from now we’re not even going to have those people to educate,” said Littzen.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics projects 200,000 RN’s will be needed per year over the next six years. But, according to Nursing Soluntions Inc., since 2015, the average hospital has turned over nearly 90 percent of its workforce—these are all pre-COVID-19 numbers.

Jessica Rainbow, an assistent profess of nursing for the UA, calls this trend the “wisdom drain.”

“These are ongoing issues, but I think the pandemic has really brought to light the fact that they need to be addressed,” said Rainbow.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates about 700 healthcare workers have died from COVID-19, but death status was only available for about 70 percent of workers with COVID-19. Rainbow is also studying this burnout to hopefully find solutions for the healthcare profession, such as more staff, more PPE and more managerial support—and things the public can do.

“As a society…wearing masks, or staying home if we’re sick, or getting tested if we’re sick for COVID,” she said.

Rainbow is collecting stories from healthcare providers—not just nurses—who are working during the pandemic. She got the idea after talking with a friend working on a COVID-19 unit.

“She was just talking about working on a COVID unit, and I realized that we really need to be capturing these experiences because we’re going to forget about them…and we can actually fix the system,” she said.

Rainbow’s study will go on for as long as the pandemic is.

During the peak of COVID-19 in Arizona, Banner hired hundreds of travel nurses, while Tucson Medical Center and Northwest received help from disaster units.

If you’d like to participate in the study, please call 1-833-624-0707 and leave a message detailing your healthcare worker experiences, or click here for more information.

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