Talking about burnout in the lab

March 23, 2022

In the International Classification of Diseases, the World Health Organization (WHO) classifies burnout as “a syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.”

The WHO, which approved this definition in 2019, also describes three dimensions of burnout:

  • feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion
  • increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one’s job
  • reduced professional efficacy

The WHO’s definition may resonate with Medical Laboratory Observer’s readers, particularly as the world grapples with the third year of the COVID-19 pandemic, even as it, perhaps, reaches a less crisis-oriented phase.

It is worth noting that laboratorians dealt with burnout even before the pandemic began. In a survey of 4,613 lab employees published in February 2020, the American Society for Clinical Pathology found that 85% of those surveyed said they’d experienced burnout during their career as a lab professional, with about 50% saying it was a current problem.

In response to feelings of burnout, survey respondents said they considered changing careers (44%); switching to a different laboratory (40%) or job in a related field (33%); or retiring (25%). In other words, burnout not only causes human suffering but exacerbates already high vacancy and turnover rates in clinical labs.

The study also found an association between burnout and stress, with 78.3% of survey participants who were feeling high stress levels also experiencing burnout.

It’s also possible that you haven’t experienced all three of the WHO’s dimensions of burnout, but you may have been burdened by at least one of them at some point in your career.

Officials at the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) recently divided $103 million among 45 organizations to respond to the staffing crisis in healthcare by promoting mental health and wellness. The grants are designed to pay for evidence-based programs that address burnout, such as by helping workers develop resilience in the face of “high patient volumes, long work hours and workplace demands.”

In a news release, HHS officials acknowledge the role that the pandemic has played in worsening burnout, fatigue, and stress.

As this is April — the month during which Medical Laboratory Professionals Week occurs — I think it is a perfect time to begin addressing burnout through a variety of initiatives, such as promoting respectful behavior, encouraging wellness activities, providing behavioral health services for employees, and reducing reliance on overtime.

In closing, I’d like to tell you that this is my last column for MLO because I am moving to another publication owned by Endeavor Business Media, MLO’s parent company. But you and the vital work you do will always have a special place in my heart. Thanks for serving patients by providing timely and reliable test results for acute and chronic diseases.

I welcome your comments, questions, and opinions — please send them to me at [email protected].