United States Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy has issued an advisory that highlights the urgent need to address the health worker burnout crisis across the country.

Health workers already faced crisis levels of burnout prior to the pandemic, Murthy noted in the advisory. But COVID-19 further exacerbated burnout with many risking and sacrificing their own lives for others while responding to the public health crisis. And the country’s “great resignation” will hit the health care industry hard. Indeed, one in five doctors plan to leave medicine in the next two years and one in three is looking to reduce their available hours in the next two years, according to a January AAMC survey of 20,000 physicians at 124 institutions across the country.

“COVID-19 has been a uniquely traumatic experience for the health workforce and for their families, pushing them past their breaking point,” Murthy said in a statement. “Now, we owe them a debt of gratitude and action. And if we fail to act, we will place our nation’s health at risk. This Surgeon General’s Advisory outlines how we can all help heal those who have sacrificed so much to help us heal.”  

The advisory recommends that health care organizations:

  • Transform workplace culture to empower health workers and be responsive to their voices and needs. Begin by listening to health workers and seek their involvement to improve processes, workflows, and organizational culture.
  • Eliminate punitive policies for seeking mental health and substance use disorder care. Ensure on-demand counseling and after work hours care are more accessible to health workers to promote and preserve their well-being.
  • Protect the health, safety, and well-being of all health workers. 
    • Provide living wages, paid sick and family leave, rest breaks, evaluation of workloads and working hours, educational debt support, and family-friendly policies including childcare and care for older adults for all health workers. 
    • Ensure adequate staffing, including surge capacity for public health emergencies, that is representative of the communities they serve. This is critical to protect and sustain health workers and communities. 
    • Organizations, communities, and policies must prioritize protecting health workers from workplace violence and ensure that they have sufficient personal protective equipment.   
  • Reduce administrative burdens to help health workers have productive time with patients, communities, and colleagues. 
    • One study showed that on average, for every one hour of direct patient care, a primary care provider will spend two hours a day on administrative tasks. That is time that could be spent with patients, in the community, and building relationships with colleagues, which is essential to strengthening the health and well-being of both health workers and patients.  
  • Prioritize social connection and community as a core value of the health care system.  
    • This enhances job fulfillment, protects against loneliness and isolation, and ultimately improves the quality of patient care. 
    • This includes peer and team-based models of care to strengthen collaboration and create opportunities for social support and community. 
  • Invest in public health and our public health workforce.   
    • Diversify and expand the public health workforce and improve disease surveillance systems to help address social determinants of health and health inequities, counter health misinformation, and strengthen partnerships across clinical and community settings.