Healthcare professionals have reported a rise in mental health issues and burnout between 2018 and 2022, with those who had trust in their management and received support from their supervisors experiencing these issues less frequently, according to a study by the CDC.

During a press conference on Tuesday, Deborah Houry, MD, MPH, the CDC's chief medical officer, emphasized the need to address the well-being of healthcare workers, who are currently grappling with their own health challenges. The study, part of the Vital Signs report, analyzed data from the General Social Survey Quality of Worklife Module. This module contains questions related to working conditions and mental health and was administered to respondents aged 18 and older who had been employed in the previous two weeks.

The study, led by L. Casey Chosewood, MD, and colleagues at the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), compared self-reported mental health symptoms among US adult workers in 2018 (1,443 respondents, including 226 healthcare workers) and 2022 (1,952 respondents, including 325 healthcare workers). Workers were categorized into three groups: healthcare workers, other essential workers, and all other workers.

Respondents were asked about their perceptions of their working conditions, including trust in management, workplace harassment, time availability for tasks, productivity support, and supervisor assistance. They were also asked about staffing levels, involvement in decision-making, general happiness, sleep problems, days of poor mental health in the last 30 days (defined as stress, depression, and emotional issues), and their intentions to seek a new job in the next year. The study used logistic regression to examine the associations between healthcare workers' perceptions of working conditions and anxiety, depression, and burnout.

In 2022, the overall number of poor mental health days in the previous 30 days was similar for all three groups of workers (ranging from 4.1 to 4.5 days). However, healthcare workers reported a significant increase in poor mental health days, rising from 3.3 days in 2018 to 4.5 days in 2022. The percentage of healthcare workers who reported frequent burnout increased from 11.6% to 19.0% during this period, and the percentage of healthcare workers considering a new job rose from 11.1% to 16.5%. Conversely, the percentage of healthcare workers reporting very high levels of happiness did not significantly change during this period.

During the press conference, Chosewood stated, "Data such as those presented in this Vital Signs report are giving us crucial and concerning information," and noted the urgent need for action. He emphasized that many healthcare systems in the nation are strained due to staffing crises, lack of supportive leadership, and inflexible working conditions, and called on employers to take immediate preventive action.

The study found that healthcare workers were less likely to report burnout if they trusted management, received supervisor support, had adequate time for their work, and felt that their workplace supported productivity. Conversely, workplace harassment was associated with higher odds of anxiety, depression, and burnout.

Dr. Houry noted that NIOSH is actively addressing this issue through the Health Worker Mental Health Initiative, which aims to raise awareness about healthcare workers' mental health issues and provide resources to employers to enhance worker well-being. As part of this initiative, a national campaign for hospital leaders will be launched in the fall, focusing on identifying and eliminating barriers to health worker well-being.

One tool that healthcare leaders can use to address this issue is NIOSH's Worker Well-Being Questionnaire, a 15-minute, 68-question survey that assesses various aspects of worker well-being, including physical health, workplace climate, and interactions with peers and supervisors. The study did not adjust its results according to industry, occupation, or work setting. However, Chosewood pointed out that certain healthcare jobs, especially those with longer hours or limited flexibility, tend to be more challenging and can lead to poorer mental health outcomes.

The study has limitations, including its cross-sectional design, making it impossible to establish causation. Data were self-reported and subject to recall and social desirability biases. Additionally, measures of anxiety and depression symptoms were not available for 2018, preventing pre-pandemic comparisons.