Researchers to examine the experiences of female health care workers to address burnout, attrition

March 17, 2022

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By Alisa Kim

The COVID-19 pandemic has made worse the long-standing issue of burnout among health care workers. A brief prepared for Ontario’s COVID-19 Science Advisory Table, for example, reports prior to 2020 severe burnout—characterized by intense emotional exhaustion and decreased professional achievement—was found in 20 to 40 per cent of health care workers. By spring 2021, rates of severe burnout surged to more than 60% of Canadian doctors, nurses and other health care professionals. Moreover, data from Statistics Canada show in the fourth quarter of 2020, job vacancies in health occupations rose by an astounding 28,000—accounting for more than one-half of the overall increase in job vacancies compared with the year before.

“Seventy-five per cent of health care workers are women, and there is a huge supply-and-demand issue right now in the health care workforce,” says Dr. Abi Sriharan, an expert in health human resources and director of the System Leadership and Innovation program at IHPME. She notes many female health care workers are leaving their occupation or moving away from frontline care. The exodus of female health professionals could lead to poorer quality of care, longer wait times and more medical errors, says Sriharan.

The issues of burnout and attrition are compelling to Sriharan. She was awarded a grant worth $100,000 from the Canadian Institutes of Health Research to lead a team of researchers to study the experiences of female health care workers with the goal of supporting them so that they stay in the field. The team includes IHPME faculty Dr. Whitney Berta, Dr. Audrey Laporte, Dr. Tyrone Perreira and Dr. Gillian Strudwick.

The researchers will first look at the literature to understand the reasons why women in health care continue treating patients, and for those who do not, what influences their decision to leave. “We want to understand the underlying factors of workforce retention,” says Sriharan, who notes organizations like the Ontario Hospital Association are particularly interested in knowing what hospitals need to put in place to support women in the workforce.

Next, they will conduct in-depth interviews with female doctors, nurses, pharmacists and other allied health professionals to understand their experiences and gain insight to support their retention.

Sriharan notes that in nursing, for example, recent graduates work clinically for an average of five years before moving into administrative roles. Personal support workers deliver frontline care for about four years before leaving the field altogether. Sriharan says health care professionals are going to choose occupations that support work-life balance. “We’ve seen the power of flexible work arrangements and taking out unnecessary, low-value care. Now it’s time to document those things to say, ‘Here is some evidence about process issues and how the system is set up.’ In a sense, we have a [health care] system based on 1970s health care needs, but we are living in the 2020s. There are technologies that we have not utilized effectively,” she says.

The aim of the research is to provide decision-makers with the evidence needed to address the current health care worker crisis. “To give high-quality, efficient health care, we need a high-functioning workforce,” says Sriharan. “Given that 75% of our health workforce is women, if we don’t address their needs, we’re going to have issues.”

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