A new study indicates increased harassment has helped fuel a mental health crisis among U.S. health workers, evidenced during the latter part of the COVID-19 pandemic by higher levels of burnout compared with other members of the country’s workforce.
The share of health workers who reported being threatened or harassed by someone while on the job more than doubled from 6.4% in 2018 to 13.4% in 2022, according to the survey-based analysis published Tuesday by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Health workers who reported being harassed were more likely to experience anxiety, depression and burnout than health workers who did not in 2022, according to the study, which also found that 19% of health workers that year reported feeling burnout “very often” compared with 12% four years earlier.
The report’s findings are based on the responses of surveyed adult workers in the U.S. in 2018 and 2022, and the CDC says it’s the first to describe and compare the self-reported well-being and working conditions of health workers, other essential workers – including “frontline, nonhealth workers,” according to the study – and all other workers before and after the start of the pandemic.
The prevalence of reported on-the-job harassment among essential workers not in the health field rose from 7.9% to 10.8% over the four-year period, while it dropped from 7% to 6.6% among all other workers. The share of other essential workers who reported feelings of burnout “very often” remained relatively stable at 15.5% in 2022 compared with 15.1% in 2018, while the share among all other workers ticked up from 12.8% to 14.1% during the time frame studied.
Overall, nearly 46% of health workers reported feeling burnout either often or very often in 2022 compared with about 40% of other essential workers and 37% of all other workers.
“Burnout among these workers has reached crisis levels,” Dr. Debra Houry, the CDC’s chief medical officer, said during a call with reporters Tuesday to discuss the report’s findings. “While usually health workers care diligently for others in their time of need, it is now our nation’s health workers who are suffering, and we must act.”
Though the number of “poor mental health days” – based on the average number of days people considered their mental health to be “not good” in the past 30 days – was similar in 2022 across all three worker categories, researchers said health workers saw a significant increase from 3.3 days in 2018 to 4.5 in 2022. Essential workers reported an average of 4.1 poor mental health days over the previous 30 days in 2022 – up from 3.7 in 2018 – while all other workers had an average of 4.3, up from 3.8.
Notably, researchers said the share of health workers who reported feeling “very happy’ did not change significantly between 2018 and 2022, when it ticked down from 32% to 29.7% – even as that happiness rate declined to sit at 20.5% among other essential workers and 26.3% among all others.
At the same time, a larger share of health workers in 2022 expressed an intention to look for another job, with 16.5% “very likely” to do so compared with 11.1% in 2018. Turnover intention declined among both essential workers and all other workers between 2018 and 2022.
Such findings are similar to previous research providing evidence of how the past few years have negatively impacted the mental and emotional health of the U.S. health care workforce. One analysis published by the Journal of General Internal Medicine found a burnout rate of 50% among more than 40,000 health care workers in 2020, with 29% of more than 15,000 respondents in the sample expressing an intent to leave their job.
Dr. L. Casey Chosewood, director of the Office for Total Worker Health at the CDC’s National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, said on Tuesday’s call that the percentage of health workers in the recent study who expressed an intention to leave their job likely includes some who will decide to leave the field altogether, either due to early retirement or a decision to change their profession.
“Indeed, some are not just jumping from hospital to hospital, but … they are quite concerned about the system in general,” Chosewood said. “Clearly, this reiterates the need to sound the alarm that the focus needs to be on long-term systemic fixes.”
The report indicates positive working conditions that include workers taking a more active role in decision-making and having enough time to complete their work could help curb burnout and mental health-related issues. Both Houry and Chosewood said the report’s findings are a call for employers to improve work environments by first acknowledging the concerns of health workers, and then working with them to identify ways of reducing stressors.
In support of those efforts, Houry announced plans for NIOSH to launch a national campaign this fall aimed at providing hospital leaders with resources to help improve the well-being of health workers.
“We don’t just want to treat workers who are suffering, we want to prevent that harm to all workers in the first place,” Chosewood said. “The ultimate goal is to build a sustainable infrastructure for future generations of health workers that optimizes the culture of health care settings.”