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Health care professionals grapple with a burnout crisis

A healthcare worker lends against a wall in the corridor of an ICU unit for COVID-19 patients at a hospital in Brazil in March 2021.
Jefferson Bernardes
A health care worker lends against a wall in the corridor of an ICU unit for COVID-19 patients at a hospital in Brazil in March 2021.

Health care professionals look out for others. It's in their job. But Jennifer Croland, chief nursing officer and vice president of patient care services at OSF Saint Francis Medical Center in Peoria, said they often forget about their own health.

“We're really good at taking care of other people,” she said. “We're not always the best about taking care of ourselves.”

A recent CDC study shows the fallout.

Since 2018, workplace harassment has doubled in health care, and nearly half of workers are feeling burned out, according to a CDC survey. Almost half of those surveyed are considering a new occupation.

Now, the CDC is declaring the situation a crisis. They’ve launched a campaign called Impact Wellbeing to target worker burnout in the field.

Local impact

Locally, hospitals say they have been feeling the same effects.

“We're not immune to some of the same things that our health care colleagues are seeing across the nation,” said Tony Coletta, vice president of human resources for Carle Health that manages Carle BroMenn Medical Center in Normal.

Coletta said working in health care can be stressful. It comes with the territory.

“Health care is a demanding profession, and our caregivers really give a lot of themselves, they get into this profession to care for others,” he said.

Croland said it also can be emotionally taxing. Nurses, physicians, and even ancillary staff, she said, go from mournful and somber to happy and chipper depending on the patient.

“You could be giving somebody a terrible diagnosis, and then walking into the room of somebody else and sharing with them that maybe their disease is getting better, or that they can go home,” she said.

Workforce shortages brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic didn’t help. Croland said they created more stressors. There are just as many sick patients, and less people to spread out the responsibility.

During the pandemic as well, there was increased workplace violence, particularly in health care.

“A lot of other people may get hurt at work, but it's because of an accident or a piece of machinery,” she said. “Health care workers get hurt at the hands of another person.”

A nurse’s perspective

A headshot of Beth Corsetti
Courtesy of Beth Corsetti
Joliet-based nurse Beth Corsetti

Beth Corsetti is a registered nurse who works at Ascension Saint Joseph hospital in Joliet. She said what nurses see is beyond burnout. She called it “moral injury.”

Nurses were sent to work during the pandemic and, as Corsetti puts it, they were often the only people interacting with patients.

“We were literally their everything,” she said about the patients.

On top of that, the media and the public decided that first responders were the “heroes” of the pandemic. This put nurses like Corsetti on a pedestal.

“Unfortunately, with that term hero comes along a lot of feeling of responsibility, a lot of feeling of guilt, feeling that we're without anyone to turn to,” she said. “Who's going to be our heroes? Who's going to help us save ourselves?”

And while the height of the pandemic has passed, hospitals are still feeling the effects of it. Corsetti said she wants to be appreciated by those around her. But more importantly, she wants to see more nurses at work.

“I'm not one to say that I'm gonna give up and quit the bedside, but it's getting to that point,” she said. “I want to be there for my patients and my community.”

Supporting workers, combatting burnout

Paris Ervin, a spokesperson at the Illinois Health and Hospital Association (IHA), said hospitals are aware of the issue, and making sure “health care workers feel more supported.”

“Hospital leaders and our floor nurses are working diligently on solutions to address the nurse staffing shortage, which in turn helps to reduce that stress,” she said.

Both Carle and OSF said they are paying attention to benefits and mental wellness opportunities.

Coletta said Carle hosted a wellbeing conference for staff. They also have leadership and workforce development programs, including a GED prep program, as well as awards and recognition for staff.

They’re also checking in with their workers, asking questions.

“What do they see in the environment? What are their thoughts about how we can best support them and create systems processes resources, to help them manage through those challenging circumstances?” Coletta said.

At OSF, they are restructuring benefits to better care for the worker. Croland said they’ve recently added wellbeing days to their time off benefits, so people can take a mental health day without wasting a vacation day or a sick day.

Croland said OSF also has done extensive research and prevention for workplace violence incidents.

In the meantime, the CDC is making recommendations as part of its Impact Wellbeing campaign. They’ve created a worker wellbeing questionnaire and are partnered with the Dr. Lorna Breen Heroes Foundation, which has been dedicated to this issue since the pandemic.

Nurse Beth Corsetti said no matter what, things need to change.

“I'm seeing more and more people cry and leave, and it's very dangerous and scary where I'm at right now,” she said.

We depend on your support to keep telling stories like this one. WGLT’s mental health coverage is made possible in part by Report For America and Chestnut Health Systems. Please take a moment to donate now and add your financial support to fully fund this growing coverage area so we can continue to serve the community.

Melissa Ellin is a reporter at WGLT and a Report for America corps member, focused on mental health coverage.