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Perspective: Confronting Health Worker Burnout and Well-Being [NEJM]

Early in the Covid-19 pandemic, when much of U.S. society shut down, health workers put their own safety on the line and kept going to work to care for patients. Although their communities initially banged on pots, cheered from their balconies, and put up thank-you signs, the pots have long since stopped clanging. Expressions of gratitude have too often been replaced by hostility, anger, and even death threats toward health workers, as health misinformation has exploded, eroding trust in science and public health experts. Yet doctors, nurses, pharmacists, social workers, respiratory therapists, hospital security officers, and staff members of health care and public health organizations continue showing up to battle the pandemic and its sequelae — long Covid, mental health strain, widening health disparities, and 2 years’ worth of deferred care for myriad conditions.

The toll on our health workers is alarming. Thousands of them have died from Covid. More than half of health workers report symptoms of burnout,1 and many are contending with insomnia, depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, or other mental health challenges.2 An intensive care nurse in Miami told me, “There was a point when I could no longer contain the heartbreak of everyone I lost.” He stopped counting after his 135th patient died from Covid in the pandemic’s first year. Caring for patients has always been emotionally and physically demanding, but as one Missouri physician told me, “There is only so much we can give. We are people, too.”

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