Using Technology to Prevent Healthcare Worker Burnout

Burnout has been a concern in the healthcare sector for a significant amount of time and experts were worried about its impact long before the emergence of COVID-19. However, the global pandemic exacerbated the issue and brought it into much sharper focus. Now in the “post-pandemic” phase, new statistics reveal just how bad the problem has become.

In 2022, NHS England experienced an absence rate of 5.6%, which equates to losing nearly 75,000 staff to illness. These absences were largely attributed to healthcare burnout. Additionally, 170,000 staff have left, or are planning to leave, the organisation due to stress and workload pressures (SOM). Perhaps most shockingly, more than a third of NHS healthcare workers report suffering from burnout (NHS).

While these figures deal specifically with the UK healthcare system, that is largely because it is the nation with the most contemporary and comprehensive statistics available. In reality, healthcare worker burnout is global in nature, impacting the US, devastating European healthcare systems and affecting Asian nations in equal measure (The Lancet).

In this article, we examine healthcare worker burnout from a technological perspective, exploring the ways digital solutions can contribute to improving the situation. From ensuring optimal resource allocation to streamlining workflows in order to alleviate the administrative burden placed on healthcare workers, highly specialised digital solutions target the root causes of burnout in various ways. Cost-effective, user-centric and designed to improve service delivery, they are among the most practical and productive solutions to the healthcare worker burnout crisis. 

What is healthcare worker burnout?

The World Health Organisation (WHO) classifies burnout as an occupational phenomenon rather than a medical condition. It defines it as “a syndrome conceptualised as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed” (WHO). The definition goes on to list three dimensions of burnout:

  1. Feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion.
  2. Increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to that job.
  3. Reduced professional efficacy.

Most experts agree burnout is not a medical condition. Instead, it is a state of physical and emotional exhaustion that results from prolonged, untreated workplace stress. “It occurs when individuals become emotionally exhausted, cynical, and disengaged from the job and feel a sense of ineffectiveness and loss of purpose.” (SOM)

While healthcare burnout has a significant impact on the individuals it inflicts, increasing the likelihood of mental health issues, affecting personal relationships and radically changing relationships to work, it is also extremely detrimental to healthcare organisations. In this context, burnout results in “medical errors, poor quality of care, and low ratings of patient satisfaction” (Montgomery, BMJ).

What causes healthcare burnout?

Healthcare worker burnout is associated with several causes, the most common being work overload. On a fundamental level, there are not sufficient healthcare professionals to provide the care we expect and demand. Increasingly, healthcare systems around the world are facing funding issues and operating under strict budgetary constraints. At the same time, other external factors have exacerbated staff shortages. For instance, in the UK, these factors include concern over working in a low-pay, high-stress environment, Brexit and poor long-term government planning (House of Lords). The sub-optimal implementation of technology also contributes. In many cases, digital healthcare solutions that are supposed to assist healthcare workers end up having the opposite effect. In this respect, the answer is not more technology, but better, more specialised technology.

However, we cannot reduce the causes of healthcare burnout to long hours and too few healthcare workers. In the New England Journal of Medicine, Murthy argues that other causes include “inadequate support, escalating workloads and administrative burdens, chronic underinvestment in public health infrastructure, and moral injury from being unable to provide the care patients need”. This results in a “fundamental disconnect between health workers and the mission to serve that motivates them” (NEJM).

While it is necessary to recognise that COVID had an enormous impact on healthcare workers and drastically increased the rate of burnout, it is also important to acknowledge that burnout was a problem before the pandemic and remains so today. Though COVID certainly contributed to healthcare worker burnout, it is by no means the only cause.

Responding to healthcare worker burnout

The Society of Occupational Medicine (SOM) identifies three levels of response to healthcare worker burnout.

  1. Primary-level interventions are concerned with the root causes of burnout. Reduced workload, support, compassionate leadership, training, workplace inclusivity and employee recognition are factors in this level of response.
  2. Secondary-level interventions deal with a worker’s ability to cope with those aspects of their work they find difficult or challenging. This means improving access to support networks, promoting self-care and helping staff achieve a healthy work/life balance.
  3. Tertiary-level interventions are reactive in the sense that they are concerned with treating burnout and facilitating a return to work (SOM).

How we can use digital technology to reduce healthcare worker burnout
Digital technology can play a significant role in alleviating and overcoming the root causes of burnout. To achieve this, we must prioritise highly specialised digital solutions designed around the needs of frontline healthcare workers.

To illustrate this point, we will examine several real-world examples of digital healthcare solutions in action and explore how we can use them to reduce healthcare worker burnout.

The importance of well-designed, user-centric systems

Ideally, digital technologies are deployed to reduce, streamline and automate the administrative burdens that add unnecessary stress, strain and hours to healthcare professionals’ workloads. Digital technology has the most significant impact when we use it to eliminate and automate the unnecessary and inefficient workflows and processes that contribute most to workplace stress and worker frustration.

However, this does depend on healthcare providers implementing well-designed, user-focused digital solutions. Poorly designed solutions will have the opposite effect, adding to worker stress and causing, rather than eradicating, inefficiencies. In his NEJM article, Murthy recognises the importance of implementing specialised, user-centric solutions, arguing that solutions need “human-centred design approaches that optimise usability, workflow, and communication across systems. Health systems should regularly review internal processes to reduce duplicative, inefficient work” (NEJM).

To demonstrate his point, Murthy highlighted the case of Hawai’i Pacific Health’s “Getting Rid of Stupid Stuff” program, which saved 1,700 nursing hours per month by asking frontline workers to help identify processes that should be changed (Building Trust). This collaborative approach with frontline healthcare professionals and solution users is also at the heart of Omda software development. We work closely with our customers and those who use our solutions to ensure they reflect user needs and help alleviate the administrative burden that can consume so much of a healthcare professional’s time.

Technology providers can take several steps to ensure healthcare solutions benefit workers and do not contribute to burnout. Gartner1 highlights the following recommendations. Technology providers:

● Must offer effective training to healthcare workers using new solutions to reduce the likelihood of burnout.
● Need to collaborate directly with healthcare professionals to create solutions that reflect their needs.
● Should prioritise the user experience when designing solutions. Once implemented, they should continue to measure user experience and adjust solutions according to feedback from frontline workers.

Resource optimisation and maximising value

Inefficient use of healthcare resources contributes to a greater workload and increased burnout. When resource use is not optimised, the healthcare system suffers, and workers have to pick up the slack.

While one solution to this problem would be to simply increase the availability of resources through sustained investment, the financial reality many healthcare providers face means this is not likely to happen. The alternative is to maximise the value derived from available resources.

Digital solutions can assist with this process by optimising operational planning and informing strategic decision-making. We can use advanced modelling software to extract maximum value from resources, relieving healthcare workers of some stress and responsibility. When healthcare resources do more, workers have to do less.

For example, the Omda Emergency portfolio of solutions includes advanced analytics software that provides intelligent modelling and resource optimisation for emergency service organisations. Whether it is being used to optimise ambulance crew shift patterns or determine the location of emergency service bases, it enables healthcare providers to make informed decisions based on historical data and complex mathematical modelling. As a result, healthcare resources are put to better use, making frontline healthcare employees’ work easier and more efficient.

Analysis and clinical support

While improved data collection allows for better information sharing and collaboration across healthcare domains, that data must also be easy to access, interpret and leverage. In this respect, digital solutions must present information in a clear and accessible manner that helps healthcare professionals utilise it.

In some instances, this could mean creating relatively simple warning systems that alert healthcare workers to concerning fluctuations in a patient’s health metrics. In others, it could mean creating visual aids that better help those professionals understand what care has been delivered and when.

Again, Omda Maternity provides us with a valuable example. Omda Maternity’s risk assessment feature analyses data and highlights potential risks using colour-coded warning icons. It also enables the creation of a digital partogram that facilitates advanced monitoring and real-time decision support during delivery. Digital solutions like this empower healthcare workers, providing them with a dependable monitoring system that they can use to make the right decisions at the right time, improving patient safety in the process.

Improved communication between healthcare professionals

In many healthcare environments, services are still highly fragmented and suffer from poor communication and collaboration between teams and the various service components. This is through no fault of healthcare professionals themselves. Instead, it is a relic of previous paper-based systems, where information was shared via physical documents, face-to-face interactions or intentional communication, such as phone calls

In the digital age, communication and information sharing should be easy and instant. Systems should be connected, ensuring data is updated in real-time and available to those relevant healthcare professionals who would benefit from it. Digital solutions should link and serve healthcare professionals along the entire care timeline, so information gathered in the first moments of treatment is available to healthcare workers caring for a patient at the end of the process.

By improving communication and enabling healthcare workers to collaborate more effectively, we prevent them from becoming isolated and provide them with access to a clinical support network. At the same time, we save them time and reduce the energy and effort required to communicate with colleagues and share critical information.

Here, Omda Fertility is an illustrative example. It connects the various teams working in the field of fertility, including donor administration, lab work and clinic management, empowering teams to work together more effectively and ensuring developments in one aspect of fertility treatment filter through to all others.

Omda solutions and healthcare worker burnout

At Omda, we believe digital technology can play an important role in tackling healthcare worker burnout. While it is important to recognise that the primary drivers of burnout are staff shortages and overworking, it is fair to say that digital technology can go a long way to alleviating much of the stress and strain associated with inefficient administrative processes.

By ensuring healthcare workers have access to digital solutions designed around their needs, we can ensure they spend their valuable time performing work that really makes a difference, improving patient satisfaction and the quality of care as a result. At the same time, these solutions will minimise the time and effort dedicated to routine aspects of care provision, making healthcare workers more efficient and less prone to burnout.

1 Source: Gartner Report. Healthcare Provider CIOs: Take a Bimodal Approach to Clinician Burnout, by analyst Veronica Walk.

Helen Døcker
Chief Marketing and Communications Officer

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Helen Døcker
Chief Marketing & Communications Officer
She is based in the company’s headquarters in Oslo, Norway.

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