Burnout written in chunky block text diagonally across the screen. The text is surrounded by workplace stationary items. Calculator, pen, clipboard note books etc.

Burnout in Healthcare

Most people have experienced burnout in some way or another. Whether you have a draining job, childcare responsibilities, an energy limiting condition, or perhaps (like many) the daily demands of simply existing are causing it – burnout is an epidemic.

So what is burnout? The WHO defines it as ‘a syndrome conceptualised as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed’. During this placement Jo has allowed us to sit in on her many pacing classes. She describes a cycle of boom and bust that most people succumb to – chronically ill or not. This cycle describes periods of intense productivity, followed by a lull of exhaustion. With each completion of the cycle resulting in a longer recovery time. This lull period is often caused by chronic stress that has gone unmanaged, we call this burnout. Unsurprising, this is a huge issue within the NHS. In 2022 there were a reported 170,000 staff members leaving due to ‘stress and workload pressures’.

As a student OT, with friends and family in the healthcare industry, I wanted to collect some more data to understand more. I used a little survey to create a mini study. These were the themes that arose:

Workplace culture

Several participants mentioned that they felt burnout was a result of ‘grind culture’. They felt pressured to work longer hours and take on larger amounts of work because of the social implications. The term ‘grind culture’ refers to the glamorisation of working beyond your means. It is highly prevalent in healthcare spaces. One of the questions in the interview/survey was ‘Do you feel able to communicate to your management team if you are feeling overworked or burnout?’. The answer was a resounding ‘no’. When asked to elaborate, participants mentioned that not only do they feel they would be judged by their managers but also shamed by their fellow colleagues. Out of fear of appearing like the weak link, people in the study reported that they suffer in silence.

Effects on patients and service users

It goes without saying that most people working in healthcare aren’t in it for the money. For many of us, we were drawn to the industry because we like to help people. We enjoy supporting patients and essentially improving their quality of life in some way or another. Therefore it is such a shame to witness firsthand the effect that employee burnout is having on patients and service users. Participants in the mini study mentioned that they ‘felt like they were failing their patients’ and that ‘if they had a smaller caseload patient care would certainly improve’.

Absences in the NHS increase yearly due to unmanaged stress. Healthcare spaces are becoming even more understaffed and employees are forced to take on colleagues’ roles and responsibilities. This makes it even easier for patients to slip through the cracks. This places a heavier burden on them to push harder for the healthcare they deserve. Witnessing patients suffering due to a failing service was brought up several times during the group interview. Almost half of the members reporting it as a factor of leaving previous healthcare roles.

Burnout effects on wellbeing

Some of the more open-ended questions revealed the specific effects that burnout was having on staff’s physical and mental health. There were physical stress related injuries such as: aching backs, migraines, IBS, eczema (most mentioned that these are long term illnesses that have been flared up by their burnout). And mental/cognitive health related conditions: depression, hopelessness, distress, panic attacks, a feeling of disconnectedness from the real world, mental exhaustion, sleep issues. Some felt they had not been trained adequately to operate at this level.


Perhaps the most disheartening thing about all of this is that so many of us feel the same. After scouring the internet to gather lived experiences, academic texts, press articles I read the same story repeated over and over.The NHS recognise the problem themselves and there is still no real change. Of course there is some support in place such as the NHS wellbeing Hub ect. But I believe the change needs to be systemic, it needs to be cultural. There needs to be a different attitude in work, especially working beyond our means. Instead of the glamorisation of back-breaking hours we should be thinking more about employee wellbeing and looking at what burnout is doing to the dwindling workforce.

One of the first things I remember learning at my occupational therapy postgrad was that ‘we are occupational beings’. Occupational therapy theory highlights that self care, socialising, completing our daily activities and having meaningful interests is crucial for our wellbeing. Without occupational balance it is easy for mental and physical health to decline rapidly (something I’ve experienced myself!). As health educators it is a shame that many of us don’t have the means to practise what we preach. But, as with many stigmatised topics the more we talk and write and post about it… The closer we’ll get to change.

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