Will post-COVID-19 fatigue and burnout drive a medical workforce collapse?

By Olivia Ong

Wednesday October 6, 2021

The burnout rate of medical staff is predicted to be 68% post pandemic.
The burnout rate of medical staff is predicted to be 68% post pandemic. (famveldman/Adobe)

COVID-19 didn’t change anything — it just accelerated what was going to happen. During the first wave of the pandemic in Australia, COVID birthed a virtual medical function and drove five years’ worth of innovation in organisations nationwide. The same acceleration of existing trends is happening in the medical workforce. Unfortunately, this radical acceleration is a negative healthcare trend we have been dreading for a while: how will frontline healthcare workers access mental health support post-pandemic?

In the US, doctors are suffering from physical and mental health conditions due to burnout. This has resulted in relationship and financial issues, moral injury and PTSD; however, the fear of stigma and license compromise is preventing these workers from seeking mental health support. Research by The Washington Post has shown that 30% of medical workers have left the profession and estimates that by 2032, the US will have a major shortage of doctors and nurses.

Politicians in Australia are focused on revitalising the economy rather than the wellbeing of our healthcare workers, despite knowing that burnout and unsupported physical and emotional exhaustion will result in a healthcare system collapse where the economy will suffer. The Burnet Institute predicts that after 26 October 2021, when Victoria reopens after 235 days of lockdown, there will be a surge in COVID-19 cases in hospitals. No healthcare system is designed to cope with such a clinical case load.

We must prioritise finding and implementing a solution to pandemic fatigue burnout. Government bodies need to show compassionate non-discriminatory leadership to all healthcare workers by supporting a mental health wellness strategy industry-wide. Metrics to measure a corporate wellness strategy should include quality, safety and patient satisfaction. In extreme workforce shortage conditions, recruitment and retention will be all that matters. Focus on becoming an industry Employer of Choice, taking better care of medical doctors and staff, incorporating patient and information flow systems, providing staff adequate to carry the workload, and collaboration in workflow design to demonstrate a culture of support.

The burnout rate of medical staff pre-COVID was 40% and is predicted to be 68% post pandemic. The healthcare industry needs to have access to RDOs, doctors should be allowed to claim overtime and working hours need to change to protect wellbeing. We need improved communication, relationships and leadership to protect our healthcare industry from severe retention decline and a dramatic healthcare system breakdown. And we need to celebrate the belief shift and change in mindset that medical frontline healthcare workers experience before they seek mental health support — these are COVID stories we should be celebrating.


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