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There's a sharp rise in health place harassment and worker burnout, CDC report finds

Health care workers strike outside Oak Hill in May, 2023.
FILE: Tyler Russell
Connecticut Public
Members of SEIU 1199NE march in front of Oak Hill in Hartford as they launch an indefinite strike to demand wage increases. 17,000+ members of SEIU 1199 New England launch an indefinite strike at group homes and day program facilities across Connecticut. The state funded workers currently start at $17 an hour, a wage that they blame for chronic staffing problems in the industry.

Burnout rates reported by health care workers nationally are higher than in any other industry, according to data released Tuesday by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Burnout — defined by the World Health Organization as exhaustion and mental distance from one’s job — was tied to rising rates of workplace harassment in the new CDC "Vital Signs" report.

When compared to before the start of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2018, more than double the number of health workers reported harassment at work in 2022. This included threats, bullying, verbal abuse, or other actions from patients and coworkers that create a hostile work environment.

Of health workers who reported experiencing burnout, 81% also reported experiencing workplace harassment.

The data shows those who reported harassment also reported higher rates of anxiety (85%) and depression (60%).

However, positive working conditions were associated with reduced feelings of anxiety, depression and burnout. According to the CDC, these positive conditions included the ability to participate in decision-making, trust in management, supervisor assistance, enough time to complete work, support for productivity and lack of harassment.

“Employers can act now by modifying working conditions associated with burnout and poor mental health outcomes in health settings,” said Dr. Debra Houry, chief medical officer at the CDC.

The CDC’s National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) will be launching a national campaign — the Impact Wellbeing campaign — to provide health employers with resources to improve worker mental health.


Health worker burnout in Connecticut

“The one thing that's unique right now that I've never seen before in the health care field, is that people who are new to the health care field, like just graduated, [are] leaving the field,” said Sherri Dayton, an emergency room nurse at Backus Hospital, and vice president of AFT CT. “You go to school for four years, you’ve collected all those student loans, you take that hard NCLEX (the National Council Licensure Examination) test. Then you decide after being in the profession for a year, five years, that you're leaving it?”

Dayton said staffing shortages and harassment from patients is contributing to burnout.

Paul Kidwell, vice president at the Connecticut Hospital Association (CHA), says hospitals statewide have begun to implement policies to address workplace violence.

Efforts include establishing workplace safety committees; identifying patients at risk for intentional harm to themselves or others, and taking steps to mitigate this risk. “They are also providing education and training to staff and volunteers on crisis prevention and de-escalation techniques to ensure personal safety,” Kidwell said.

The CHA recently created a Statewide Patient and Family Code of Conduct Policy for use by hospitals and health systems to protect healthcare workers.

Kidwell said CHA is continuing to build off of state legislationapproved this year that aims to raise awareness about preventing violence against health care workers, and to increase opportunities for the state to support hospital investments in security infrastructure.

Sujata Srinivasan is Connecticut Public Radio’s senior health reporter. Prior to that, she was a senior producer for Where We Live, a newsroom editor, and from 2010-2014, a business reporter for the station.
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