Behind-the-scenes health workers like lab technicians and medical assistants are just as burned out as the rest. Experts worry what this means for recruiting and patient care.

  • Many health workers not on the frontlines are burned out from long hours and few breaks.
  • This affects other hospital workers and patients, leading to mistakes and lack of empathy.
  • Extra time off, mental-health support, and flexible scheduling can help.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

The lab at Houston Methodist Willowbrook Hospital in Texas has been busier than ever. 

Normally, it processes around 85,000 blood, urine, and other tests each month from all areas of the hospital. During the pandemic, that number increased by 30,000 to 40,000 as the lab took on processing COVID-19 tests, too.

Keeping up with the high volume of requests put a strain on the whole team, Tamika Simon, the lab’s services director, told Insider.

“At certain times, you couldn’t sit down, you couldn’t get your breaks,” Simon said. “You just felt like there was never any downtime. It was not being able to finish one task because you’re stopping to help someone over the phone.”

The extra work and the fact that the lab’s staff of about 50 weren’t able to take time off for most of the year made everyone exhausted.

On top of an extra-busy workday, many were dealing with anxiety and stress in their personal lives. Simon said most staff members have children in grade school and were juggling virtual education. Others had spouses who lost their jobs or lived with elderly family members and worried they might spread the virus when going back and forth from the hospital.

“Those things led up to burnout or just a sense of feeling overwhelmed,” Simon said.

Nearly 70% of frontline health workers said working through the pandemic has left them feeling “burned out,” according to a recent Kaiser Family Foundation and Washington Post survey. But health workers not working the frontlines, including lab technicians, medical assistants, and others, are experiencing burnout, too — and, experts say it could have lasting effects on patient care and the industry as a whole.

Patient outcomes and experiences can be negatively impacted when health providers are burned out

Lab technicians, medical assistants, radiation specialists, and others play vital roles in healthcare, but these professions are often overlooked, Dale Healey, dean of the College of Health and Wellness at Northwestern Health Sciences University, told Insider.

“When you’re dealing with patients directly in the case of medical assistants, dealing with managing thousands and thousands of test kits coming in as a medical lab tech or medical lab scientist, or being furloughed because you’re not directly involved in patient care or COVID directly — all of that is going to have an impact on burnout and their ability to cope,” Healey said.

Behind-the-scenes burnout can also trickle down to doctors, nurses, and even patients, affecting patient outcomes and increasing instances of medical errors. Poor experiences that result from burnout also increase distrust in the healthcare system and can make someone less likely to seek medical care in the future, William Chum, a licensed psychotherapist in New York, told Insider. This could especially impact marginalized communities, since they may not have as much choice in where they receive care.

Along with anxiety, depression, and irritation, Chum said among the health workers he’s treated and worked with he’s seen decreased motivation and empathy for patients. Others seem less engaged in their work and are making mistakes, getting distracted easily, and crossing professional boundaries with their patients.

The stress of working in healthcare during the pandemic has led more health workers to seek mental-health treatment, Chum said. And that’s overworking mental-health providers.

With higher caseloads, he said he’s seen colleagues recently struggle with “compassion fatigue” and difficulty engaging with patients.

“In turn, that develops into poorer health outcomes for both the provider and the patient,” Chum said. “Mental-health work is not as procedural as implementing certain techniques — our ability to empathize and understand our patients are our tools, and when those tools burn out, treatment simply does not work.”

Burnout could turn behind-the-scenes providers away from the healthcare field

Lauren Trenkle, CEO and cofounder of Total Testing Solutions, a medical diagnostic testing firm, told Insider she worries the experience of working during the pandemic will inspire some to leave the medical field. Her company “can’t hire fast enough,” she said, adding that some healthcare roles are viewed as “thankless jobs.”

When recruiting and onboarding new hires, Trenkle said they emphasize the difference that these roles make in the healthcare system and in getting through the pandemic.

The healthcare industry needs to be doing more to prevent burnout and support individuals who experience it, she said. Giving people extra time off, rewarding anyone willing to take on more, and hiring more staff should be priorities.

“Even a simple ‘thank you’ goes much further than we all think,” she said.

At Houston Methodist, Simon said routine one-on-one meetings are held with staff to understand their challenges and keep tabs on how they’re feeling. To help relieve burnout in the last year, the lab has hired extra full-time staff and allows flexible scheduling.

“That has really increased morale,” she said. “It has lowered their stress.”

Connecting health workers with supports like counseling, massage therapy, or acupuncture — services large institutions already have onsite — is another way the industry can reduce burnout, Healey said.

“No one is able to do a good job at anything if they are not given the tools to succeed,” he said. “And the tools that healthcare workers need are the resources for them to maintain their own health. One thing that also helps with burnout is talking about burnout.” 

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