opinion column

opinion column

Opinion: Root causes of healthcare worker burnout

Over the last several years, there has been an increasing recognition that burnout is rising exponentially among healthcare workers – and there has been a positive shift in the public understanding of burnout and other mental health issues in general. Unfortunately, the policy response from governments, healthcare institutions and policy-makers has been woefully inadequate.

Instead of addressing the root causes of burnout and mental distress among our healthcare workers, both before and as a result of COVID-19, what has been their response? A proliferation of toolkits and do-it-yoruself resources developed and directed at healthcare workers that focus on helping them build their own personal resiliency.

On the surface, providing resources to healthcare workers to maintain or improve their mental health seems like a laudable goal. Who could argue against delivering these resources to a group that is suffering? But it’s the wrong approach at the wrong time and carries negative consequences.

Framing the issue of burnout as a lack of resilience is a classic example of victim-blaming. It places the causes, effects and solutions to the problem squarely in the hands of those suffering from it.

Let me be clear; there is absolutely nothing wrong with providing resiliency training or resources that focus on things like mindfulness, yoga, meditation, breathing exercises, visualization and the plethora of other solutions on offer. They can all be useful tools for addressing the crisis, and I am sure, many healthcare workers use and appreciate them.

But these are just band-aid solutions.

Resiliency toolkits and online resources do nothing to address the actual causes of healthcare worker burnout and mental health distress. The root causes are policy- and system-wide and not related to the shortcomings of healthcare workers themselves.

Among those I represent, Canada’s medical radiation technologists who administer radiation therapy to cancer patients, and do the X-rays, nuclear medicine, MRIs, and CT scans that allow doctors to diagnose and provide medical treatment, burnout is rampant.

Promoting personal resliancy is not a solution for inadequate staffing, unreasonable workload expectations, or insufficient leave. These are the issues that need to be addressed, and only governments, employers and leaders in the health sector can do it.

Healthcare decision-makers at the federal, provincial and institutional levels need to take this issue on in earnest. Those with power and access to the levers of change must stop hiding behind issues of jurisdiction and their singular focus on cost as justifications for inaction.

The pandemic has shown us that when governments face a national crisis, they can collaborate and surmount enormous challenges. Canada is emerging from the pandemic injured, but compared to other countries, we have fared fairly well. This is due, in large part, to the people that are the essence of our healthcare systems.

If we continue to turn the car radio up to drown out the sound of a malfunctioning engine, we will ultimately pay the price. If we don’t treat our healthcare workers as a precious commodity we need to vigorously protect, we will be in trouble.

We have weathered this pandemic in relatively good shape. If we continue along the path we are on, we may not fare as well in the face of the next health emergency. And, we will have no one to blame but ourselves.

The situation we find ourselves in is curable; it does not require a palliative approach. We have not exhausted all of our options. Quite the contrary, we have barely begun the diagnostic process.

Healthcare workers need and deserve much more than we are doing. We owe them a true commitment to protect their health and welfare, just as they have committed themselves to ours.

We have an obligation to address the systemic issues eroding the morale, physical and mental health, and spirit of our healthcare workforce.

Our goal must go beyond helping healthcare workers to survive. They deserve to thrive.

Irving Gold is the chief executive officer of the Canadian Association of Medical Radiation Technologists.