Coronavirus pandemic stressors impacting careers of healthcare workers


April 22, 2021

By Christopher Cheney, HealthLeaders Media

The coronavirus pandemic has led many healthcare workers, particularly women with children, to consider leaving the workforce or reducing work hours, a recent study found.

In March 2020, 42% of U.S. workers transitioned to working from home. It is likely that employed women faced greater burdens because they spend 22% more time on household and care work compared to men. Studies have shown that healthcare workers have faced higher stress levels during the pandemic than before the pandemic.

The recent study, which was published by JAMA Network Open, features survey data collected in August 2020 from more than 5,000 faculty, staff, and trainees at University of Utah Health. The research includes several key data points.

  • 49% of parents said that parenting was a stressor during the pandemic and 50% of parents said helping children with virtual education was a stressor
  • 21% of survey respondents reported considering leaving the workforce and 30% reported considering reduced work hours
  • 55% of faculty and 60% of trainees reported perceived decreased productivity
  • 47% of survey respondents reported concern that the pandemic would impact their career development, with 64% of trainees reporting a high level of concern
  • 81% of survey respondents said balancing childcare and work responsibilities was somewhat or extremely difficult
  • 60% of survey respondents reported that continued opportunity to work from home was very or extremely helpful
  • 68% of survey respondents reported that scheduling flexibility was very or extremely helpful
  • 61% of survey respondents reported that knowing a work or training schedule one month in advance was very or extremely helpful
  • 57% of survey respondents reported that have a supervisor who had a good understanding of work-life struggles was very or extremely helpful

“In this survey study, most participants with children did not have childcare fully available and many considered leaving the workforce and were worried about their career. Being female with children or having a clinical job role was associated with consideration for leaving the workforce and reducing hours,” the study’s co-authors wrote.

Health systems can take actions to address their workers’ stress related to the pandemic, they wrote. “Health systems must develop effective strategies to ensure that the workplace acknowledges and supports employees during this unprecedented time, not only within the work environment, but also in managing unanticipated childcare responsibilities due to lack of childcare or in-person school. In doing so, health systems will improve the likelihood of retaining generations of well-trained clinicians, scientists, and staff.”

Interpreting the data

One of the study’s co-authors told HealthLeaders that two findings of the research were most concerning.

“We are particularly troubled by the fact that so many faculty members who have dedicated five-to-10 years of their life training to become physicians or scientists were considering leaving the workforce. Additionally, almost 50% of faculty and 64% of trainees (students, residents, and fellows) were worried that the pandemic had negatively impacted their career,” said Angela Fagerlin, PhD, chair of the Department of Population Health Sciences at University of Utah.

There are three primary actions that health systems can take to support healthcare workers during the pandemic, she said.

  • Setting clinical schedules as far ahead of time as possible so healthcare workers can make childcare plans more effectively
  • Allowing for flexible work schedules as much as possible such as working from home and working sporadically through the day while making up time-off hours
  • Having supervisors better understand work-life struggles

Several factors are likely linked to those in clinical job roles considering leaving the workforce and reducing hours, Fagerlin said. “I imagine the lack of flexibility or the ability to stay home with children may have contributed. Non-clinicians such as PhD faculty had the flexibility to stay home, although as a PhD-scientist mother of three kids who only all went back to school recently, working while virtual-schooling is a different type of stress. Another feasible reason is the incredible stress resulting from caring for patients during COVID and the risks associated with that care.”

Christopher Cheney is the senior clinical care? editor at HealthLeaders. This story first ran on HealthLeaders Media

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