Insights March 2022

Hospitals Need to Give Front-line Workers More Flexibility to Prevent Burnout

Peter Faist


As bleak as they are, the increasingly frequent headlines about healthcare workers getting burnt out by the COVID-19 pandemic should come as no surprise.

The conditions for burnout have always been prevalent in healthcare, particularly in hospital settings. Working on the front lines in a hospital in any role – whether as a nurse, physician, personal support worker or technician – can be physically, mentally and emotionally draining. There are long hours, high levels of stress, a complex work environment to navigate and the heavy emotional toll that comes from caring for patients who are often in desperate need of help.

Add the increased demand created by a global pandemic and a chronic shortage of health human resources to the mix, and it is easy to understand why burnout has increased dramatically over the past two years and hundreds of healthcare workers have decided to leave hospitals for jobs elsewhere.

Research released in October by Ontario’s Science Advisory Table on COVID-19 found more than 60% of Canadian physicians, nurses and other healthcare workers reporting that they were experiencing severe burnout – a significant increase over the pre-pandemic prevalence rate of 20 to 40%. Over the same time frame, vacancies for front-line positions in hospitals and other healthcare settings have risen to record levels, according to Statistics Canada.

To avert a vicious cycle where understaffing leads to increased burnout and an even weaker healthcare workforce, the Science Advisory Table recommends interventions to reduce burnout that need to be implemented at organizational and structural levels of healthcare systems. These include visible and authentic senior leadership and managerial support, training to increase workers’ confidence with unfamiliar tasks, supporting workers who are experiencing moral distress and addressing workloads to reduce overtime and shifts that stretch longer than 12 hours.

Government initiatives to help address staffing shortages, enhance training and increase compensation for key positions, such as personal support workers, have helped to temporarily alleviate some of the staffing pressures.

But we need to examine creative solutions to alleviate some of the systemic issues and working conditions that have been causing burnout in hospitals long before the pandemic took hold nearly two years ago. 

Introducing more flexibility in scheduling is one obvious area where hospitals can look to the business world outside healthcare for guidance on how to make working conditions more appealing and to help recruit and retain staff.

Allowing workers to set their own hours and work off-site was already beginning to be tested by some progressive companies prior to COVID-19, but many organizations embraced flexible shift models out of necessity when the pandemic forced them to adapt. In many cases, they have found that employee productivity and job satisfaction have increased with less rigid scheduling.

Hospitals do not have the same options to let front-line health workers do their jobs from home, but we need to explore innovative new ideas to provide more flexibility in scheduling and help hospitals optimize their workforces.

The rising popularity of digital platforms that allow personal support workers, nurses and other health workers to pick up shifts on an occasional basis at hospitals and other health settings shows that there is a strong appetite among trained healthcare workers to have greater control over when, where and how they work. 

Insufficient supply alone cannot be blamed for our worsening health human resources problem. Despite the widespread shortages of labour in some positions, there is a large pool of highly qualified healthcare workers in the broader workforce who are trained, available and willing to help on a casual or temporary basis. However, some of these skilled workers are looking for more flexibility to balance their home and work lives than is typically permitted through traditional hiring and scheduling practices at many hospitals, long-term care homes and other healthcare organizations. Others appreciate gaining relevant experience in different settings a couple of days per week as they study to become the next generation of nurses and doctors, or simultaneously managing other responsibilities, such as parenting and caregiving.

Our hospitals and healthcare system cannot afford to lose more personnel to burnout. We need to take advantage of every tool and examine every solution that allows us to use our existing human resources more effectively to prioritize the health of front-line workers and patient care.  

About the Author(s)

Peter Faist is the CEO of Toronto-based Staffy, a digital platform that connects healthcare employers with qualified, pre-vetted staff to fill vacancies on a temporary basis.


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