Burnout or Burndown? How to Support Health Professionals

Mar 02, 2022 | COVID-19 |

This episode and blog post are Part 1 of the second special report of our Vaccine Confidence Special Reports series on At the Core of Care. Over the course of 6 episodes, we'll do a deep dive on three different facets of the COVID-19 vaccination effort. Stay tuned for new episodes in the coming weeks by following us on Twitter and subscribing to our newsletter

We spend this episode and the next hearing nursing views on the impact of burnout, the pandemic’s role, and paths forward. Dr. Ali Tayyeb is our guest for this episode. He is a nurse and a veteran with a specialty in combat trauma. Today, he is a Professor of Nursing at California State University Los Angeles and the host of a podcast called RN Mentor.

We ask Dr. Tayyeb to describe nursing burnout in the workforce around him. However, he doesn’t even use the term “burnout” anymore. “Burndown,” he says, depicts a clearer image of the system that causes burnout amongst nurses. The individual nurses he sees getting overwhelmed are the last link in a chain that starts with how hospitals are run.

Prior to the pandemic, many hospitals were understaffing nurses. Dr Tayyeb explains, that means we have the minimum number of people that are available. And when one or two of those people all of a sudden are out of that system, the system really feels it.” The addition of the COVID-19 pandemic and repeated waves of hospitalizations forced nurses into high-stress situations, with staffing issues contributing to an already shaky foundation. Burnout, or burndown if you prefer, is a systemic issue.

Dr. Tayyeb notes the social and emotional nature of nursing work as another root cause of burndown. Nurses “tend to deal more with the patients, with their families…. establish more of a relationship with those individuals. So when things go wrong, or things don't go the way they expect, it's a more personal kind of let down with them with that nurse.” The patient-provider relationships intrinsic to nursing can infringe on nurses’ wellbeing.

At this moment in the pandemic, as nurses and other healthcare providers continue to promote vaccine confidence, they are increasingly providing critical care for unvaccinated COVID-19 patients. Dr. Tayyeb notices a different tone toward healthcare staff. He says, “now the people that we're seeing coming through the door are the anti-vaxxers, anti-maskers. And with that comes the mentality of being resistant to the healthcare system, the nurses and physicians that are trying to help you. And it just doesn't make sense for us.” Dr. Tayyeb lists some of the ways unvaccinated COVID-19 patients can endanger hospital patients and staff.

Building vaccine confidence is a critical step in reducing pandemic-related burndown in the healthcare system. But nurses will need institutional support to address burn down and to build sustainable working environments going forward. Pay, staffing, and adequate resources will continue to shape the work environment.

Later in the episode, Dr. Tayyeb shares his personal outlets to manage pandemic-related stress. In response to the surge of deaths among hospital workers in 2020, he built a giant papier-mâché sculpture, using quotes from news headlines and the stethoscopes of real nurses. “About 400 hours or so went into making this and it was really therapeutic for me. It was a way for me to understand and grasp what was going on in the world. But it was also a way for me to try to share that,” says Dr. Tayyeb. The sculpture circulated newspapers and journals across California and brought attention to the needs of hospital staff.

As a nursing professor, Dr. Tayyeb was disheartened by the lack of educational opportunities for his virtual students. He began recording conversations with healthcare professionals to show his nursing class what was going on during the pandemic. These conversations are now a part of a  podcast, called RN Mentor, that Ali Tayyeb hosts. If you enjoy At the Core of Care, please check out RN Mentor wherever you listen to podcasts.

Nurses and other health professionals across the country are using innovative methods to vaccinate their communities against COVID-19. Follow along as we explore their stories in depth as part of our Vaccine Confidence Special Reports. 


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This project was funded in part by a cooperative agreement with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (grant number NU50CK000580). The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is an agency within the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). The contents of this resource center do not necessarily represent the policy of CDC or HHS, and should not be considered an endorsement by the Federal Government.



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About The Author

Annelise Slater is a Public Health Project Coordinator at the National Nurse-Led Care Consortium. 

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