Nurses are the core of the healthcare system. The roles they play tie directly to patient care and outcomes. As such valuable resources, they are always in demand, and current shortages are hitting high numbers. One of the primary reasons for this is burnout. Nurses suffer burnout at high rates, often leading them to leave the field.
What can the healthcare industry do to prevent nurse burnout?
Adopting automation is a proven way to reduce the stresses and pressures that lead to these feelings. Before jumping to solutions, let’s take a closer look at the problem itself.
The Nursing Shortage
Registered nurse (RN) vacancies are worrying but not surprising nearly three years into a pandemic. Currently, the RN vacancy rate in hospitals is 17 percent, with almost every healthcare organization experiencing a lack of nurses. The industry projects this will continue through 2030 as the demand for RNs increases.
Those who enter the nursing field have a desire to care and help. It’s also a career with strong wages—so why are people leaving and others not pursuing this traditionally in-demand career path? Much of the answer has to do with nurse burnout.
What Is Nurse Burnout?
Experts define nurse burnout as a state of mental, physical, and emotional exhaustion directly linked to work-related stress. The stressors can include long work hours, the constant pressure of needing to make quick decisions, the strain of caring for patients, and frustration with workflows and technology.
Additionally, many healthcare facilities and hospitals are operating at below-normal staffing numbers. As a result, the nurses still in these positions must fill in the gaps, caring for more patients and taking on more tasks.
According to the World Health Organization, occupational burnout is characterized by three primary elements:
- Emotional exhaustion characterized by low energy, fatigue, depression, hopelessness, and helplessness.
- Cynicism or distance from one’s work, which in nursing can present as unfeeling and negative behaviors toward others and detachment from the root of the profession—caring for others.
- Reduced feelings of professional accomplishment, a state of negative evaluation of the self, including the belief that you are incompetent, unsuccessful, and inadequate.
If nurses carry these feelings around each day, burnout becomes more severe and may eventually end their career in healthcare. The environment for burnout was present long before the pandemic, but the last few years certainly exacerbated burnout, taking these feelings to new levels.
The Impact of Nurse Burnout
The effects of nurse burnout are far-reaching. The most pivotal one is its impact on turnover, which has a high cost to employers and leaves nursing units understaffed—which, in turn, can negatively impact patient care.
Care quality can also decline when nurses suffering burnout stay on the job. As noted above, individuals experiencing burnout are exhausted, detached, and believe themselves deficient. These feelings, along with all the pressures of the job, can lead to patient safety concerns.
Burned-out nurses can make errors in care. There have been multiple studies on burnout and patient safety. One from the American Journal of Infection Control found an association between nurse burnout and urinary tract infections (UTIs) and surgical site infections.
Errors that can occur because of burnout aren’t always about direct care, however. They can also happen when nurses interact with technology like electronic health records (EHRs). The information in these digital charts must be accurate to avoid harm, such as accidentally giving medication to a patient who has an allergy to it.
Nurses have high frustrations around EHRs, and a study from the University of Pennsylvania’s School for Nursing found a link between EHR usability, nurse burnout, and patient outcomes. If EHRs aren’t user-friendly, require too much manual work, or don’t fit care workflows, the burdens on nurses increase, along with burnout and the potential for worse patient outcomes.
Given all of the above, the healthcare industry has reason for concern. However, preventing nurse burnout is possible.
Preventing Nurse Burnout Leads to Better Patient Care, Business Success, and Employee Satisfaction
Organizations need to address burnout early and often to prevent its effects on patients and nurses. There are several strategies that experts state can help prevent burnout, including:
- Reducing shift times to a maximum of nine hours
- Ensuring nurses take appropriate breaks and time away from work
- Providing support for nurses through groups and programs
- Recommending new coping mechanisms, such as practicing yoga, journaling, and other self-care activities
All these things work to combat the emotional toil of burnout. There is still more to the story, but when you reduce burnout, results improve. In the study about the link between burnout and UTIs and infections, the hospitals that reduced burnout by 30 percent had fewer infections, resulting in a $68 million savings.
If healthcare treats burnout proactively, it can have a dramatic effect on nurses’ experiences. Nurses—and all employees—who feel they have outlets for support and that employers care about their well-being are more apt to handle stressors better.
There’s one more piece of the puzzle that can have a significant influence on nursing burnout: automation.
How Automation Can Help Healthcare Scale and Prevent Nurse Burnout
One key factor that often arises in the conversation about burnout is interaction with technology, specifically with EHRs. In addition to the University of Pennsylvania’s School for Nursing study, another report linked EHR issues with burnout and stress.
It’s not only the usability of EHRs that causes frustration. There are also issues with lack of data or its storage in siloed systems, interoperability struggles between platforms, and other operational inefficiencies. The bottom line is that nurses shouldn’t spend more time with a screen than with their patients. Unfortunately, many nurses have little choice in the matter.
The answer to eliminating some of these concerns is automation, which can greatly improve employee satisfaction.
Applying automation in healthcare to support nurses is possible with robotic process automation (RPA) and intelligent process automation (IPA). RPA describes digital robots that automate repetitive tasks. Building on RPA, IPA adds AI technologies to automate more advanced areas of work.
By using RPA and IPA, organizations can:
- Streamline access to patient data across systems.
- Reduce time to care intervals.
- Alleviate administrative burdens; automation can carry out about 44 percent of administrative tasks.
- Improve interactions with EHRs, as nurses go from entering data themselves to using EHRs as a tool to understand a patient’s condition and history. In this scenario, they have enhanced clinical support and diagnosis tools at their disposal.
- Reduce medical errors; IPA can scan EHR data to flag anything unusual or risky.
In addition to these opportunities involving nurses’ duties, automation can also help in the bigger picture. Hospital administrators can use it to understand staffing levels and plan accordingly. It can also be supportive in recruitment and onboarding.
Automation and Meaningful Work Keep Burnout at Bay
With these automation capabilities, you can keep nurse burnout at bay and ensure that your staff is engaged in more meaningful work. After all, nurses are in this field because they want to be part of the greater good. They are nurturers, and a connection to meaningful work is crucial for them to continue this career. If there’s a disconnect here, burnout is inevitable.
Learn more about meaningful work and how automation supports it by reading our e-book How Automation Plays a Key Role in Meaningful Work.