The Big Question: Can We Prevent Occupational Burnout?

The Big Question: Can We Prevent Occupational Burnout?

By Blake Ursch

Maybe you’ve been there. Exhaustion. Disaffection. Trouble concentrating, trouble working.

The symptoms of professional burnout are all-too familiar to those who’ve experienced them. They seep into the day-to-day and bleed into the off hours, leading to feelings of dread and dissatisfaction.

But researchers at Creighton University, looking into the causes and effects of burnout in various professions, have discovered ways to fight it.

“An overarching concept, when you’re talking about someone’s burnout level, is to think of it as a bucket,” says Maggie Knight, BSBA’01, DBA’18, assistant professor in the Heider College of Business. “You’ve got a bucket that has to be filled with a certain amount of resources to get through your day. When you have a task at work or a conflict, that’s draining resources from your bucket. But your work-place can also be filling up the bucket at the same time.”

Awareness of occupational burnout has risen in recent years as professionals have begun discussing mental health more openly, Knight says. The condition is recognized by the World Health Organization (WHO) as a psychological syndrome characterized by chronic feelings of work-related stress. Estimates of the number of Americans experiencing burnout vary, but a 2018 Gallup study of 7,500 full-time employees reported 23% felt burned out at work often or always, with another 44% reporting they felt burned out sometimes.

All of this eventually adds up. Employees experiencing burnout are typically less productive and more likely to leave their jobs. Some experts have estimated that U.S. industries lose $300 billion a year to workplace stress, Knight says.

Burnout plagues certain fields more than others. Cases have long been observed among teachers and social workers. Public accountants are also high on the list, Knight says, due to long hours, high workload and high-pressure client deadlines.  

In recent years, the medical community in particular has made addressing burnout among physicians a key priority. According to the National Academy of Medicine, burnout is nearly twice as high among U.S. physicians compared to any other field.

“Recently, burnout has become more of a problem in the medical community because health care has become more and more complex,” says Prasanna Tadi, MD, assistant professor in the School of Medicine and a neurologist with CHI Health. “There is a lack of autonomy, and we are becoming more and more siloed. Before, we had a community of people to talk to. That’s going away.”

High workload is also a significant stressor, Tadi says. A current physician shortage is on track to double by 2025, which poses a problem for an aging population. Fewer physicians are working longer hours to meet the chronic medical needs of their older patients.

After personally experiencing burnout, Tadi says fighting the condition became his life mission. His work led him to be selected for several state and national programs aimed at promoting physician wellness.

At Creighton and with CHI Health, Tadi also works to address burnout at the individual level. In addition to making and sharing wellness videos online, he oversees the CHEER study, a once-a-month 90-minute meeting where medical students gather to share experiences with each other.

In the program, third- and fourth-year medical students serve as mentors to first- and second-year students. Meetings are followed by CHEER emails that are used to recognize the personal and professional accomplishments of each student.

Similar strategies can be applied to combat burnout in professions outside of medicine, Knight says. In most cases, burnout arises due to some combination of three common “role stressors”: conflict between incompatible roles, ambiguity about role expectations and role overload. Employers can minimize the impact of these stressors by addressing them directly — responsibly managing employee workload, being explicit about work expectations and giving employees the resources to recharge, Knight says.

“Social support and supervisor support help,” she explains. “You should have a best friend at work. There is good evidence indicating that having a strong social network at work leads to higher employee well-being. The same is true for supervisor support. How your supervisor interacts with you, what kind of conflict management style he or she uses, all of this plays a big part in whether you feel these role stressors at work.”