Large survey identifies toll of pandemic on healthcare worker exhaustion

Sept. 22, 2022
Research from Duke Health.

COVID exacted a huge toll on the wellbeing of healthcare workers. Already struggling with high levels of emotional exhaustion going into the pandemic, the problem grew even worse after two years of managing the crisis. Nurses have been especially hard hit.

The findings, reported online Sept. 21 in the journal JAMA Network Open by a Duke Health-led team of researchers, resulted from surveys over three years with more than 30,000 health care workers -- including doctors, nurses, clinical socials workers, administrators, and others -- to track the emotional impact of the pandemic.

Across all roles, the researchers found increases in emotional exhaustion -- a way of measuring burnout and wellbeing -- from about 32% in 2019, before COVID hit, to 40% by January 2022.

Researchers conducted the cross-sectional survey of 30,000 healthcare workers at 76 geographically dispersed hospitals around the United States. The surveys were administered before the pandemic (September 2019) and twice during the pandemic (September 2021 and January 2022).

The survey covered safety culture and workforce well-being and engagement, plus emotional exhaustion metrics that captured both individual perceptions and the workplace climate.

Participants were asked to rate their agreement with statements such as: “I feel frustrated by my job,” and “Events in this work setting affect my life in an emotionally unhealthy way.”

To assess the workplace more broadly, participants rated externally focused statements, including: “People in this work setting feel frustrated by their jobs,” and “Events in this work setting affect the lives of people here in an emotionally unhealthy way.” 

Nurses had the highest levels of emotional exhaustion. They started the pandemic with 41% reporting emotional exhaustion, escalating to 46% the first year and to 49% the second. This same pattern emerged for every other healthcare job role, albeit with lower starting rates. The exception was physicians.

Doctors had a unique trajectory, reporting an emotional exhaustion rate before the pandemic at 32% and actually logging a decline to 28% the first year of the pandemic. It then shot to 38% the second year.

Duke Health release