It’s natural that we want to bestow our healthcare workers with heroic status. They’ve been operating at the epicentre of the Covid outbreak for almost two years. And they continue to do so, despite the rise of healthcare staff burnout borne from exhaustion, stress, staff shortages, long hours and personal vulnerability.
Healthcare staff burnout will not be helped by the winter we are heading into. The healthcare teams we rely on are facing a rising tide of Covid infections, coupled with perennial winter pressure, flu cases and an extensive care backlog.
It is a credit to our healthcare staff that care standards remain as high as they do.
But we also have to ask ourselves: do we help our healthcare staff by labelling them as heroes? In business, there's an urge to identify hidden heroes. To give them a pat on the back? No. They are sought out because they are believed to be the point where the organisation could be out of control. If that’s the case, what does it say about the provision of healthcare?
Excessive workload worsens healthcare staff burnout
In the US, it is reported that 500,000 healthcare workers left their jobs in August. Those remaining have engaged in dozens of strikes. In England, the NHS has 94,000 vacancies, including 9,691 doctors and 38,952 nurses. Personnel shortages are the biggest threat to the NHS’s attempts to tackle the care backlog, according to the Health Foundation.
Healthcare staff burnout is a contributing factor. Stress levels have become so toxic that they risk causing staff to make mistakes and cut corners, leading to patient dissatisfaction and poor quality of care. This is supported by the findings of regulators such as the CQC.
It was also evidenced in a recent report from the Kings Fund, describing the chronic excessive workload in the NHS.
Authors Suzie Bailey and Michael West said: “In a context of inadequate resources including unsatisfactory levels of staffing, equipment, training and supportive leadership, workload is the number one factor predicting ever-increasing levels of staff stress.”
The authors go on to say: “There is a pathology in the health and care system that assumes the only way to manage more demand is to spin the hamster wheel ever faster.”
It’s a shocking observation, considering the times we are in. There's clearly a need for new approaches to address healthcare staff burnout.
Digital initiatives have done little to tackle staff burnout ... so far
The pandemic has forced healthcare providers to prioritise digital transformation. But it has primarily been prescribed as a treatment patient engagement. There’s an internal complaint that remains undiagnosed.
Technology adoption has accelerated at an astonishing speed and that momentum will carry through into 2022. According to research Accenture, 81% of healthcare executives are continuing to speed up the pace of innovation.
There have been huge strides in areas such as telehealth, rightly delivering more accessible and immediate care to patients unable to attend appointments in person. But without equivalent digital investment to empower staff, the impact of transformation efforts in healthcare will be limited.
A rapid response to Covid-19 doesn’t negate the longer-term imperative to build more resilient and flexible healthcare ecosystems. This will require more attention to the way healthcare teams go about their work; making best use of their skills so they can add value where it matters.
To address healthcare staff burnout, we need a forensic look at the myriad tasks our healthcare teams have to tackle on a daily basis. Which repetitive tasks could be automated to remove the manual burden from staff? How much administrative paperwork could be moved online? How could staff get better on-the-spot guidance to support them as they work through their tasks?
Eradicate punishing paperwork to push back on healthcare staff burnout
Daily processes and procedures underpin almost every aspect of patient care.
However, too much of what happens in healthcare is manual, bureaucratic and mired in mountains of paper-based admin. This approach only heightens the risk of healthcare staff burnout. It doesn’t support staff and doesn’t align with the demands of today’s fast-moving environment.
We need better ways to manage standard operating procedures, whether with supportive digital assistants or automation of repetitive, manual tasks.
Given the large proportion of temporary and agency staff required to support healthcare providers facing high demand and restricted resources – with staff absent due to illness or isolation – we have to look at ways to support staff who may be unfamiliar with specific localised requirements.
Checklists are not the answer. We need to eradicate paper-based, outdated, manual processes, endless feedback forms and countless audits checking up on staff.
We’ve read a lot about the digital transformation of healthcare over the past year. But the focus has been on technology that makes services more accessible to patients. Far less attention has been given to digital tools for the staff who are crucial to making those services possible.
Most modern businesses recognise today that staff are their greatest asset. Providing joined-up systems across multiple sites, with mobile solutions for staff who have little access to desk-based technology, can be an important quality and safety driver.
This is where healthcare finds itself at odds with other industries. In numerous other sectors, employers have empowered their people with digital capabilities that enable them to do more in terms of productivity, efficiency and quality of service.
Can you imagine an Amazon employee with a clipboard filling out forms to ensure deliveries are on time?
Large organisations across retail, logistics and manufacturing recognise that safety, consistency and efficiency are key to their success. They adopt digital systems to strengthen the ability of their workforces to deliver in these vital areas. They actively enable systematic excellence.
The problem is that systematic excellence can no longer be based on siloed spreadsheets and paperwork that, by their nature, only look backwards.
Provide guidance to support staff
There’s an opportunity to move forward with real-time informative systems designed to guide and support staff and provide the automated audit trail for compliance and regulators, so that quality is embedded in the process of care.
Given the workload in healthcare, there’s limited time for traditional training and oversight. Delivering step-by-step best practice guidance to mobile devices can strengthen confidence and consistency.
With digital assistants to take care of repetitive manual activities and guide best practice, we can reduce healthcare staff burnout, free up more time for value-adding work, reinforce consistent standards and reduce errors that, while understandable in current circumstances, are avoidable with the right support in place.
By delivering step-by-step best practice guidance to mobile devices, healthcare employers can strengthen confidence, compliance and consistency.
Mobile solutions put processes directly into the hands of the people who need them, prompting and guiding both scheduled and unscheduled work.
Data-driven insight pinpoints new ways to prevent healthcare staff burnout
The past year has taught us about the power of data to support the fight against a pandemic. It’s now time to harness the power of data to prevent healthcare staff burnout too.
Common pinch points, inefficiencies and blockers can be more easily identified through data-driven insight, enabling managers to adjust pro
cedures and direct training or support to the teams that need it most.
Siloed spreadsheets and paperwork restrict managers’ view of what’s happening on the frontline – and their ability to analyse performance, implement change and work towards continuous improvement.
At Checkit we describe this phenomenon as dark operations.
Shining a light into this world will reveal why the heroes exist. They cover up the cracks in the system, using huge amounts of time and energy to smooth over the bumps, repeat lost processes, generate paperwork and backdate signatures to satisfy compliance audits.
On the face of it, they are heroes. But deep down we are covering up the true problem. It’s time to build better support structures for healthcare staff, harnessing digital innovation to reduce manual burdens and begin to reverse the rise of burnout.