In the COVID-19 era, we lean on our health care workers. But who do health care workers turn to when they need support?
The U.S. surgeon general warned in May that health care employees are in the midst of a burnout crisis. Nationwide, nearly one in five have left their job since the onset of the pandemic, exacerbating pre-existing workforce shortages and increasing the strain on those who are left. In South Carolina, where COVID-19 infection rates have consistently been among the highest in the country, one-third of nurses say they’ve considered leaving the profession altogether.
Associate professor Melissa Reitmeier has seen it firsthand. As director of field education for the College of Social Work, Reitmeier places students in clinical sites across the state. Health care’s high staff turnover rate has made it more difficult to find locations where students can get the training they need.
In July, she and a team of her colleagues launched a series of online training sessions to combat health worker burnout in South Carolina through a $1.7 million grant from the Health Resources and Services Administration, an agency of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
The project, Health Occupations Providing Excellence in Workforce Wellness and Resiliency, tackles the problem by targeting three audiences: health occupation students, current practitioners and leadership.
“We want to equip people with the skills and give them the support at all levels so that they can stay in these professions that are already so short-staffed as it is,” Reitmeier says.
Workers in South Carolina were spread thin even before COVID-19. The state has one of the nation’s highest nursing shortages, and more than 95 percent of residents live in areas facing a shortage of primary care professionals. Half of all counties have fewer than a dozen social workers tasked with serving the entire population. These challenges are even more pronounced in rural areas, which struggle to recruit and keep health care providers.
The stress of it all can sneak up on people, she says. Knowing how to recognize the warning signs as soon as they start is key to preventing behavioral health disorders.
That’s where the student training series comes in. Reitmeier’s team collaborated with colleagues in the College of Pharmacy and College of Nursing to develop tailored sessions for aspiring practitioners in each profession Modules explore mental health topics and teach skills such as mindfulness, regulating emotions and forming positive relationships.
“We’re customizing micro self-care strategies and providing education around burnout that’s specific to their profession,” she says. “Because if you know what might be likely, it might prompt you earlier to engage in more preventative strategies.”
The webinars for working practitioners — social workers, nurses, pharmacists and others — cover similar topics and can be taken for free continuing education credits through the South Carolina Area Health Education Consortium.
Then there’s the Leadership Academy series for policymakers. Think: physicians, supervisors, executive directors. These sessions tackle the issue more broadly with the goal of transforming the industry’s organizational culture. Participants are given tools to assess burnout within their organizations and learn how workflow changes can enhance employee wellness.
“Leadership gets caught up with the deliverables, the project management, the workflow, the cost, the ratios for staff to client,” she says. “This really educates them about what’s happening because workers can do as many micro self-care strategies as they want, but if they’re still meeting resistance in the workforce, it’s going to be really hard for those to make a permanent difference.”
It’s not just health care employees who stand to benefit from the project. A healthier workforce is better equipped to care for patients. But supervisors have to be willing to talk about it.
“Here at the College of Social Work, we’ve actually made it a part of the competencies for students to talk about self-care and ways that they work to build resilience in themselves,” she says. “It would be great if we could see that as a part of every normal dialogue between an employee and a supervisor.”
The biggest hurdle, though, might be convincing health care workers — many of whom have spent the past two and a half years burning the candle at both ends — that it’s OK to finally prioritize their own wellness.
“They have such a heart for helping that maybe they forget to help themselves first,” Reitmeier says. “It’s kind of like when you get on the airplane and the instructions say you need to put the oxygen mask on yourself before you can help other people. I think this is the message we’re trying to get out there.”