Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, there was a growing awareness of burnout in health care, including in the medical laboratory. Burnout not only impacts health care professionals, but also impacts the quality of patient care. The problem is due to several factors, including overburdened laboratory staff, a lack of recognition, and an increasing workforce shortage, and the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has intensified these issues.
Researchers and professional organizations have started to examine the prevalence and causes of burnout. However, organizations and leaders must act now to acknowledge and address the different factors that contribute to burnout and exhaustion in the profession as a whole.
What is burnout and what does it look like?
Burnout is described as physical or emotional exhaustion usually due to prolonged stress or frustration, where individuals feel overwhelmed and unable to keep up with constant demands.1 Symptoms of burnout vary person to person, but common signs include feeling tired and drained, having a sense of failure and self-doubt, and experiencing a loss of motivation. Employees who experience burnout are more likely to call in sick, be less productive at work, and more likely to change jobs than those who are not experiencing burnout.1,2
Burnout in clinical laboratory staff
"Some of the factors survey participants noted as contributing to burnout included a heavy workload and pressure to complete all testing, a lack of adequate staffing and control over their schedule, and a lack of appreciation/recognition/respect and understanding and support from management."
Amid increasing reports of physician suicide, decreasing patient satisfaction surveys, and many employees reporting unhappiness about working in health care, many professional organizations began to survey professionals to get better insight into the prevalence of burnout in the industry.
In a study conducted in 2018, the American Society for Clinical Pathology (ASCP) examined job satisfaction, well-being, and burnout in laboratory professionals. They found that while a majority of respondents were satisfied in their current job (62.7 percent), 53.4 percent reported feeling a lot of stress at their job, and an astonishing 85.3 percent reported experiencing burnout as a laboratory professional.3 Almost half of laboratory professionals felt as though burnout was a current issue, and many considered changing careers completely, moving to a different laboratory, seeking employment in a similar field, or retiring.3 Some of the factors survey participants noted as contributing to burnout included a heavy workload and pressure to complete all testing, a lack of adequate staffing and control over their schedule, and a lack of appreciation/recognition/respect and understanding and support from management.
When discussing the ASCP burnout survey in an editorial for the American Journal of Clinical Pathology, Dr. Steven Kroft, professor of pathology at the Medical College of Wisconsin, wrote that while the majority of laboratory professionals surveyed felt a sense of accomplishment from their work, many did not feel valued or respected by those outside of the clinical laboratory.4 This lack of recognition by other health care professionals increases the amount of burnout experienced by those working in the laboratory.
While the COVID-19 pandemic has potentially helped address the lack of recognition in the workplace, the high demand for COVID-19 testing during 2020 and 2021 has exacerbated the lack of staffing and schedule control already felt prior to the pandemic by creating even more demanding workloads.
"Fostering a safe and collaborative work environment allows lab managers to attract, retain, and promote qualified talent within their own organization."
Monitoring burnout at a company level can be difficult. According to Tywauna Wilson, MBA, MLS(ASCP)CM, her organization looks for burnout using employee engagement surveys, daily rounding with employees, and department huddles. Wilson is the system technical director for chemistry at CompuNet Clinical Laboratories, and the founder and CEO of Trendy Elite Coaching and Consulting. At her laboratory, leaders also examine the frequency of employees calling out sick to determine if there is burnout occurring among the staff. “We have noticed that employees are calling off of work more frequently now than in pre-pandemic times,” says Wilson.
Stephanie Whitehead, MBA, MPH, MLS(ASCP)CM, agrees. “Monitoring employee morale through rounding or by reviewing employee satisfaction surveys is a good indicator of burnout,” she says. Whitehead is the executive director of pathology services at University Health System. When discussing what other indicators she uses for monitoring burnout among her staff, Whitehead says when she sees a drop in employee retention, as well as decreased productivity and a higher error rate among employees, then the organization needs to start implementing changes to help reduce burnout.
Benefits of reducing burnout for organizations and patients
Organizations and patients benefit from reducing burnout and improving the engagement of laboratory employees. Studies have shown that collaborative work environments, where teamwork, communication, mindfulness, and psychological safety are valued, are less likely to experience burnout than others.5 Fostering a safe and collaborative work environment allows lab managers to attract, retain, and promote qualified talent within their own organization, says Wilson. Retaining in-house talent can help increase the number of professionals available to step in and help divide a lab’s workload, preventing staff from becoming overwhelmed.
Patients benefit from a decrease in burnout among laboratory staff by experiencing decreased errors, better quality in testing, and more positive experiences with staff, says Whitehead. Wilson agrees, adding that improving employee satisfaction and morale at work also improves testing turnaround times and decreases wait times at patient service centers. Being able to improve the quality of care provided to patients is the best motivator for laboratories to reduce burnout among staff.
A call to action
"National professional organizations, such as ASCP, ASCLS, CLMA, and others, need to come together to bargain for standardized practices in reducing burnout."
As researchers begin to learn about the causes of burnout, more solutions can be implemented to help curb the spread of this problem in an already exhausted workforce. Laboratory managers and supervisors have the ability to make changes in their clinical labs to help improve employee morale and general attitude at work. Laboratory directors also need to be more in touch with what is occurring in their laboratories. Starting with better employee benefits, more recognition, and higher prioritization of employee mental health and well-being, organizations can make major strides in reducing rates of employee dissatisfaction.
While much can be done at the organizational level, the lack of standardization throughout the industry leads to many laboratory professionals falling through the cracks. National professional organizations, such as ASCP, ASCLS, CLMA, and others, need to come together to bargain for standardized practices in reducing burnout. Moreover, organizations can help professionals by addressing the workforce shortage and advocating against the closure of qualified schools for medical laboratory science and related professions.
1. Smith, Melinda, et al. “Burnout Prevention and Treatment.” HelpGuide.org, Oct. 2020, www.helpguide.org/articles/stress/burnout-prevention-and-recovery.htm.
2. Wigert, Ben, and Sangeeta Agrawal. “Employee Burnout, Part 1: The 5 Main Causes.” Gallup.com, 12 July 2018, www.gallup.com/workplace/237059/employee-burnout-part-main-causes.aspx.
3. Garcia, Edna, et al. “The American Society for Clinical Pathology's job satisfaction, well-being, and burnout survey of laboratory professionals.” American Journal of Clinical Pathology 153.4 (2020): 470–486.
4. Kroft, Steven H. “Well-being, burnout, and the clinical laboratory.” American Journal of Clinical Pathology 153.4 (2020): 422–424.
5. Edwards, Samuel T., et al. “Cultural and structural features of zero-burnout primary care practices.” Health Affairs (Project Hope) 40.6 (2021): 928–936.