Liaison psychiatry nurses have a tough job. They are based in the Emergency Department and work with individuals experiencing acute distress; these patients may have recently self-harmed or attempted suicide and could be at high risk of further harm. Liaison psychiatry nurses contact gatekeepers to other services while under the pressure of national waiting-time targets. They usually have no continuity with patients after they are discharged and may be left wondering how their patients’ situations turned out in the end. Both mental healthcare staff and emergency department staff are high risk groups for burnout (Johnson et al., 2018; Potter, 2006); liaison psychiatry nursing combines each of these elements and so these nurses may experience particularly elevated stress.

In order to provide liaison psychiatry nurses with more support, one hospital introduced reflective practice groups. The groups were a protected hour: the liaison psychiatry nursing team left the department to go to a quiet room in another building where they could not be contacted. The groups were facilitated by a clinical psychologist already employed by the hospital. I particularly liked this feature; too often I hear about outside consultants being paid hefty sums to deliver wellbeing packages with hazy evidence bases, when most healthcare organisations already have a group of highly trained professionals employed in their  psychology department who can do this work. The psychologist enabled dialogue between the team members and facilitated their conversation but did not impose an agenda.

When I was invited to contribute to the evaluation of this intervention I was delighted. We interviewed 13 liaison psychiatry nurses who had attended the group. They identified four main benefits of participating:

  • Sharing and learning. Participants found that sharing their experiences in the group helped them to feel less alone. They realised that other people in their team were experiencing similar challenges and they left the group sessions feeling clearer-minded and lighter.
  • Grounding and perspective. Participants said the group allowed them to take a step back and gain perspective on the difficulties of their work and the risks involved. It reminded them of the value their work has.
  • Space. Participants described the group as a safe space; they felt able to ask for help or to say they were unsure of things and seek advice from their colleagues.
  • Relationships. Participants said the group supported some positive interpersonal experiences between team members. The fact that they had an external facilitator and were guaranteed to be free from interruptions led them to feel they could raise difficult issues with their colleagues, in the knowledge they would be able to resolve these before the conversation ended.

It should be noted that not all nurses found the group beneficial. Some felt that the types of discussions they had during reflective practice were already happening elsewhere and they believed a protected space was not necessary. However, these nurses recognised that some of their colleagues benefited from the group, and were willing to participate in recognition of the overall team benefit.

We weren’t able to quantitatively evaluate the group as the number of participants in the study was too small. However, our qualitative data suggested that overall these groups provided a range of benefits which would have been hard to get from another forum, and some participants believed that sickness absence in the team would have been higher without them.

Practical tips for running reflective practice groups

For anyone wanting to run reflective practice groups, our study suggested a few things should be considered:

  • Groups shouldn’t include managers. The presence of managers changed the nature of the group and inhibited open discussion.
  • Protected time is key. Nurses stated that the groups were the only time they were guaranteed to have a conversation at work without interruption, and this was an absolute necessity for helping them feel able to discuss sensitive issues.
  • The facilitator must be external to the group. Previous research suggests nurses trained in reflective practice can supervise these groups and there can be benefits to having someone of the same discipline provide this facilitation. However, experienced clinical psychologists should be sufficiently trained to offer this in the absence of trained nurses. Our study suggests this is acceptable to nurses and the important thing is that the facilitator works in healthcare but is external to their team.

A practical and cost-effective solution

Further research is needed to establish the effectiveness of reflective practice groups for supporting staff wellbeing. However, the evidence base for burnout reduction interventions in general is still small (see my previous blog on this here), and the best methods for supporting staff are not yet established.  While we wait for evidence-based recommendations, reflective practice groups are a cost-effective form of support for liaison psychiatry nurses: they require no special equipment, no long periods of staff absence from work and can be facilitated by in-house psychologists, so no expensive outside consultants are required.

To read this study please see here

In 2018, for the first time, the General Medical Council (GMC) included items on burnout in its National Training Survey. The survey was completed by 51,956 trainee doctors and 19,193 trainers, making it the largest burnout survey in UK doctors to date. The response rate was also extremely high – 96% of all doctors in training who were contacted completed it, as did 41% of all contacted trainers. As such, these results provide a reliable picture of the current situation in the medical workforce. The survey found that 24% of trainees and 21% of trainers feel burnt-out to a high degree or a very high degree (for the full report, see here).

When I read these results in the BMJ, I wasn’t surprised. Rates of stress and burnout are high in healthcare staff internationally; in the 2018 Medscape report on physician burnout and depression, out of 15,000 US doctors, 42% were burnt-out and 12% were categorised as ‘colloquially depressed’. I was also concerned: a growing body of research shows a strong and consistent link between higher staff burnout and poorer patient care. Papers I have authored and co-authored show:

• 70% of studies which have investigated burnout and patient safety in healthcare staff have found a significant link between the two (Hall et al., 2016).
• In nurses, higher burnout is linked with poorer perceptions of patient safety both at the level of the individual practitioner and the ward level (Johnson et al., 2017).
• GPs think that burnout affects the quality of patient care by reducing their abilities to emphathise, to show positive attitudes to patients and by increasing the number of inappropriate referrals made (Hall et al., 2017).

Together with Dr Maria Panagioti and Dr Christopher Bu, I decided to respond to the BMJ article on the survey findings to highlight the evidence that burnout in doctors affects patient care. In particular, our letter focused on a recently published systematic review and meta-analysis led by Dr Panagioti. The findings of the review are described in more detail in a previous blog post (see here), but in brief, the review reported that burnt-out doctors are at twice the risk of being involved in a patient safety incident and at twice the risk of having dissatisfied patients.

This research reinforces the importance of measuring burnout in the medical workforce and the need to reduce this. The best way to intervene is currently unclear; while evidence suggests that interventions which target organisations (for example, redesigning jobs) are more effective than those which target individuals (for example, delivering mindfulness courses; Panagioti et al., 2017), there are many interventions which blur this boundary. These include training interventions, which are delivered to individual practitioners but aim to support them in their work, rather than improve their personal coping skills. Evidence suggests these are effective for tackling burnout (Dreison et al., 2018). Clearly, more research is needed. However, while we wait for this, I would suggest that organisations respond to the expressed needs of their workforce, providing the interventions that are both requested and well utilised.

To read our letter to the BMJ, please see here.

To read my previous blog on tackling burnout, please see here.

There is increasing evidence that healthcare staff burnout is linked to a range of negative outcomes, including increased staff absences, higher rate of staff turnover, and poorer quality of patient care (see my previous blog on this here). In a systematic review I co-authored, we found that that 21 out of 30 (70%) studies looking at the link between higher staff burnout and poorer patient safety reported a significant association between the two (Hall et al., 2016). The review found hard evidence for what many clinicians could see happening in their wards and surgeries: when staff are hard pressed, patient care suffers. It was well received on social media and has since been cited dozens of times.

However, while this previous review found clear evidence for a link between staff burnout and patient safety, it seemed to me that two questions remained unanswered. The first was whether there is also a link between burnout and other aspects of patient care, such as patient satisfaction. The second was what the strength of this relationship is: that is, just how much do increases in burnout impact patient care?

So, when I was invited to contribute to a systematic review on the links between burnout and patient care in doctors by Dr Maria Panagioti, I jumped at the chance. The review led by Dr Panagioti aimed to answer both these questions. It gathered studies which investigated burnout in doctors in relation to a broader range of outcomes, including:

  1. Patient safety incidents, (e.g., adverse events, medication errors, diagnostic incidents)
  2. Low professionalism (e.g., adherence to treatment guidelines, quality of communication, malpractice claims, empathy)
  3. Low patient satisfaction

It also quantified the strength of these relationships using meta-analysis, which was not employed in the previous review.

Is burnout linked with patient safety incidents?

The review identified 21 studies which reported on the association between burnout and patient safety incidents. The results of the meta-analyses suggested that burnt-out doctors were twice as likely to be involved in a patient safety incident as those not suffering from burnout. All aspects of burnout (exhaustion, disengagement and low accomplishment) were associated with a significantly higher risk of being involved in a patient safety incident.

Is burnout linked with low professionalism?

28 studies were found which reported on the link between burnout and low professionalism (e.g., showing low empathy, having received a malpractice claim). The results of the meta-analyses suggested that burnt-out doctors were twice as likely to show low professionalism. When the different aspects of burnout were examined separately, disengagement was the aspect most linked with low professionalism. Doctors who were disengaged from their patients were 3-times as likely to exhibit low professionalism. Doctors high in emotional exhaustion or low in personal accomplishment were over 2.5-times as likely to exhibit low professionalism.

Importantly, the review found that the link between burnout and low professionalism was twice as high in trainee and early career doctors compared with more experienced doctors. This is particularly concerning when the recent GMC survey results showing that a quarter of trainee doctors are burnt-out are considered.

Is burnout linked with low patient satisfaction?

7 studies reported measures of patient satisfaction. It was found that burnt-out doctors were at twice the risk of having dissatisfied patients. Again, disengagement was the aspect of burnout most closely linked with low patient satisfaction, with disengaged doctors showing a 4.5-fold increased risk. Low personal accomplishment was also linked with twice the risk of low patient satisfaction. No link was found with emotional exhaustion.

Where now?

This review finds strong evidence that burnt-out doctors are at significantly higher risk of being involved in patient safety incidents, showing low professionalism and having dissatisfied patients. Having clarified the presence and size of the problem of burnout for patient care, the next step for us as researchers is to identify evidence-based solutions to this problem. While a number of interventions to reduce burnout have been proposed (see Panagioti et al., 2017), there is a need to identify 1) which interventions are most feasible and most effective, and 2) whether reducing burnout can improve patient care.

For my previous blog on tackling burnout, please see here.

The review described in this article was published in JAMA: Internal Medicine. To read it, please see here.

A previous post looked at the negative impact of staff burnout on patient care. But how can we tackle this problem? In this post I will consider the evidence for the effectiveness of interventions for reducing burnout.

Types of interventions
Interventions to tackle burnout are often broadly split into those which are targeted at the ‘individual-level’ and those which are targeted at the ‘organization-level’. Individual-level interventions are context independent; they view employees as people who are suffering from poor mental wellbeing and aim to treat this. They may include stress management workshops, one-to-one cognitive therapy or the provision of support phonelines for staff. Organization-level interventions on the other hand are ‘context dependent’; they view employees as workers being impacted by difficult work circumstances. They may include the changing of shift-patterns or rostering practices, improving canteen facilities or the provision of job training.

Are organization-level or individual-level interventions most effective?
There is debate as to which type of intervention is most effective. Three recent meta-analyses have found somewhat conflicting results.

  1. In a meta-analysis of 15 randomised trials and 37 cohort studies in doctors, West et al. (2016) found that while organization-level interventions were more effective than individual-level interventions for overall reducing overall burnout, there was no difference when the outcome was either of the specific facets of burnout (emotional exhaustion and depersonalisation).
  2. In a meta-analysis of 20 randomised controlled trials in doctors, Panagioti et al. (2017) found that organization-level interventions were significantly more effective than those which were targeted at the individual-level.
  3. In a meta-analysis in mental healthcare professionals, Dreison et al. (2018) found that individual-level interventions were more effective than those targeted at the organization-level.

Why the difference?
These conflicting results could partly be due to different interpretations of what the categories of ‘individual-level’ and ‘organization-level’ interventions include. For example, whereas West et al. (2016) included communication training interventions in with individual-level interventions, Dreison et al. (2018) regarded these as training interventions, which they included in with organization-level interventions. The lack of clear findings could also be an artefact of how broad these categories are; when Dreison et al. (2018) broke down the category of organization-level interventions into training interventions and non-training interventions, their results differed again; training interventions were actually more effective for reducing overall burnout scores than individual-level interventions. It is possible that the categories of ‘organization-level’ and ‘individual-level’ interventions are so broad as to be useless.

Take home message
Despite the confusion over organization-level vs. individual-level interventions, the clear message is that overall, interventions ARE effective. DO SOMETHING and there is a good chance your staff will benefit.

Helping staff to love their work
A first step in developing any effective burnout intervention should be to look at the causes of why this burnout has developed in the first place. This may sound obvious but it is often overlooked. Studies into the causes of burnout have identified several contributors which interventions could seek to address, including poor staffing ratios on wards, lack of time for patient-facing work, inadequate IT facilities and lack of training or professional development opportunities. The unifying theme here is that we need to help staff to love their work – we need to help make the difficult aspects of their work more manageable and support them to maximise and capitalise on the parts of the job they love. A recent example of this is the introduction of a caseload-carrying model of care to midwifery in Australia. Caseload-carrying midwives follow the same women up throughout their pregnancy, rather than simply attending to women who arrive at a clinic when they are working (who will likely have their other appointments with different midwives). There were concerns that carrying responsibility for a caseload may increase the burnout levels of midwives, but in fact the opposite has been found. A study by Dawson et al. (2018) found lower rates of burnout and more positive work attitudes in caseload-carrying midwives than those working in the traditional model. If we consider the causes of burnout, we could hypothesise that caseload-carrying midwives enjoyed stronger relationships with the patients that they had and were able to employ and develop a greater skill-set due to working with women at all different stages of pregnancy.

I work in healthcare. What can I do to help myself?
Research suggests that making changes at the level of the organization is a key to targeting healthcare staff burnout. However, if you are a healthcare worker keen to improve your own self-care, there are things you can do:

  1. Help yourself get good sleep. A recent study suggests that people who get better sleep are less likely to report burnout three years later (Elfering et al., 2018). If you work night shifts, getting good sleep may be particularly difficult for you. The BMA have recently published tips for managing these. Amongst other things, they suggest taking naps of 10-20 minutes during the early part of night shifts, avoiding caffeine and nicotine in the final few hours of night shifts, and wearing sunglasses on your journey home in the morning, even on a cloudy day.
  2. Put in boundaries. Nurses who have clear boundaries between their work and home lives have higher wellbeing (Oates, 2018) and psychotherapists who put in boundaries on an emotional level between themselves and their clients (Simionato et al., 2018) have lower burnout.
  3. Spend time relaxing, listening to music and being out in nature. Nurses who do this report higher wellbeing (Oates, 2018).
  4. Look into training opportunities you can access via work. The budgets for Continuing Professional Development have been squeezed in recent years, but research suggests that healthcare staff who get more workplace learning have higher job satisfaction (Iliopoulous et al., 2018), and training could be one of the best ways to tackle burnout (Dreison et al., 2018).
  5. See if there is a way you can get more time to do aspects of the job you think are important. Carefully consider the parts of your work that give you the greatest sense of satisfaction. Is it building positive relationships with patients? Is it contributing to service level improvements? Is it learning about recent advances in your area and seeking to apply this knowledge to your own patients? Whatever it is, see where there could be scope to spend more time on this. Research suggests that doctors believe having adequate time for key tasks is the most important thing to reduce burnout risk (Fortenberry et al., 2018).

This blog was written in conjunction with a talk given at the Practitioner Wellbeing Conference in Manchester on 14 June 2018. To download a copy of the slides, click here.

Between January 2005 and March 2009, hundreds of patients died due to poor care at Stafford Hospitala. The public enquiry into what had happened at the hospital was launched in November 2010. I was living in nearby Birmingham at the time, and stories of the horrors that had occurred at the hospital were frequently broadcast on the local news. Surgical equipment such as clips and clamps which should have been single-use were being used multiple times; patients on wards were left without water and some became so desperate they drank from vases containing flowers. Food was taken to vulnerable patients but not fed to them, and patients could be heard crying out from their beds due to lack of pain relief.

How could this happen?
As an NHS employee in a neighbouring healthcare trust, I found it hard to fathom how this could have happened. The Francis Report, the final report from the inquiry into Stafford Hospital, was published in February 2013. It suggested the causes were complex. There were significant staff shortages caused by the cutting of jobs in an attempt to meet a £10m budget deficit. When concerns were raised by staff or visitors through relevant forums, these were ignored. Importantly, staff became disengaged at all levels, and this in itself became a hard-to-measure but important cause of suffering.

In one tv news report a former patient, Nicola Monti, describes how she returned to hospital with a bowel condition following the birth of her second baby. She became sicker in the squalid hospital conditions and contracted MRSA. As she speaks about how the nurse communicated this information to her, by throwing the test results down on the bed, tears spring to her eyes. The results meant continued isolation from her two children and intense feelings of loneliness, but it is clear that simply the callous manner in which the nurse told her was in itself a significant cause of pain.

These patterns play out in more muted ways
Staff disengagement had a key role in contributing to the terrible events that occurred in Stafford Hospital. Thankfully the Staffordshire hospital failings are an outlier, but in my experience these patterns can play out in more muted ways. In a service I worked in where bullying was rife and staff were miserable, patient care did not receive the enthusiasm and energy it should have. On the other hand, in services I’ve worked in where staff felt they were part of a functioning and effective team, the mood was more positive and patients received the best that service had to offer.

Time for research
While I had seen these patterns in services I worked in, I wanted to find evidence to back up my anecdote. I arrived in my current job as a Lecturer at the University of Leeds and Bradford Institute for Health Research in October 2013 with this as my focus.

Staff: The greatest asset of the NHS
The first thing I discovered when I began my reading in this area is that the workforce is the greatest asset of the NHS. The NHS is the world’s 5th biggest employer, employing 1.7m staff altogether, including 141,000 doctors and 329,000 nurses, midwives and health visitors. The annual bill for employing clinical staff is £43 billion, which is around half of NHS Trusts’ budgets (National Audit Office, 2016). 

The second thing I discovered is the extent to which turnover and sickness absence –clear outcomes of elevated burnout and disengagement – are causing major problems for the NHS. Between 2011 and 2015 the number of staff leaving their jobs each year due to poor work-life balance doubled. Each time a staff member leaves, costs are incurred due to 1) employing temporary staff to fill their role until a replacement is found, 2) advertising, interviewing and recruiting a replacement staff member and 3) training the new staff member. I was unable to find cost estimates for the NHS, but the price of replacing a nurse has been estimated to be $20, 561 in the USA, $26, 652 in Canada, $23, 711 in New Zealand and $48, 790 in Australia (Duffield et al., 2014).

Sickness absence
NHS staff are off work due to sickness for twice the number of days as those working in the private sector. What is particularly concerning is that a significant proportion of these days are due to stress and anxiety. In doctors in acute trusts, 17% of all sickness absence days are in this category; in doctors in mental health trusts it is 26% (see my previous blog for more information on this). These absences can lead to delays and interruptions in care and divert NHS resources to paying for expensive agency cover. This problem is increasing: in 2010, £2.2 billion was spent on agency staff, but by 2015 the figure had risen to £3.3 billion. This leads to a vicious cycle: money that could be spent on enhancing services and supporting existing staff is diverted to agency fees. In turn, services suffer, staff are not as well supported and more leave and become unwell due to stress. This further increases the agency bill, and so on.

Impact on patient care
A large body of evidence shows that higher staff burnout is linked with poorer quality patient care. For example, in a study of emergency doctors published in 2015, those who were classed as suffering from burnout said they more frequently ordered extra tests, failed to treat pain in a timely manner, discharged patients to make the department manageable, did not discuss treatment options or answer patients’ questions, did not communicate important information in handovers and did not discuss treatment plans with appropriate staff (Lu et al., 2015).

This poorer care is reflected in lower patient satisfaction. In an analysis of the NHS staff surveys of 2009, 2010 and 2010 together with trust-level measures, patient satisfaction was higher when fewer staff worked extra hours, more staff felt valued by their colleagues, staff reported lower work pressure and higher levels of engagement (Powell et al., 2014).

The all-important question of patient safety
While there was a lot of research studies on the link between staff engagement, burnout and quality of care indicators, there was much less research on the link with patient safety outcomes. Exploring this was of key importance to me: in Stafford Hospital, patients weren’t just reporting low satisfaction, hundreds had died. Understanding and evidencing the link between staff engagement/burnout and patient safety was paramount to preventing this from happening again. When I told clinical colleagues of my plans, they told me not to bother: “It’s so obvious, of course staff wellbeing and patient safety are linked. You don’t need to research it”. I became slightly concerned I could be wasting my time, but decided to plough on anyway in the hope that like me, someone else might feel the need to evidence the obvious.

First step: A review of the literature
First we undertook the first systematic review of studies linking healthcare staff burnout and wellbeing with patient safety. Forty-six relevant studies were identified. The review found that 89% of the studies which measured wellbeing reported a significant association between wellbeing and patient safety, and 83% that measured burnout reported a significant association between burnout and patient safety. The review was led by Dr Louise Hall and published in PLOS One in 2016, and has since received over 100 citations according to Google Scholar metrics, making me glad that I didn’t heed the initial discouragement I received!

Which matters most – general mental wellbeing or burnout in particular?
The concept of more general mental wellbeing (e.g., depression) is distinct from burnout, which focuses specifically on negative work experiences and attitudes. I became interested in which of these areas may be most important to focus on in relation to patient safety. To address this we conducted a survey study in 323 nurses across 3 trusts. Participants completed measures of burnout, depression and perceptions of patient safety. Statistically speaking, we found that while both burnout and depression had direct individual associations with patient safety perceptions, the association between depression and patient safety was fully mediated by burnout. In other words, we found that depression IS linked with patient safety, but it is the portion of depression that overlaps with burnout that creates this link (See Figure 1). In short, burnout seems to be the more important concept to focus on. We concluded that interventions looking to improve patient safety may benefit from focusing on burnout in particular, for example using strategies to enhance staff engagement in work rather rolling out one-to-one therapy for depression. The study was published in Journal of Advanced Nursing.

Figure 1. It is the portion of depression that overlaps with burnout that is linked with poorer patient safety perceptions.

What are the mechanisms?
A final question we wanted to answer was into the mechanisms of this association: if a staff member is feeling burnt-out, how does this turn into poorer patient care? We addressed this in a qualitative study led by Dr Louise Hall, which was published in the Journal of Patient Safety. Five focus groups with 25 GPs were undertaken. GPs thought poor wellbeing and burnout affects care quality by reducing doctors’ ability to empathize, increasing their negative attitudes to patients and by increasing the likelihood that the GP will simply refer the patient on rather than manage them in clinic, even if the referral isn’t really appropriate. GPs thought that burnout impacts patient safety by reducing their mental functioning and decision making abilities and increasing their fatigue. As one GP said, when burnt-out, they may be less likely to ‘connect dots’ across time and realise that current symptoms may be indicative of a bigger picture indicating a more concerning problem; because of this they could risk missing an important diagnosis.

Interested in how healthcare staff burnout can be tackled? Please see this blog post.

This blog was written in conjunction with a talk given at the Practitioner Wellbeing Conference in Manchester on 14th June 2018. To download a copy of the slides, click here.

a The Francis report of February 2013 concluded that it would be unsafe to infer from these statistics that there was any particular number of avoidable or unnecessary deaths at the trust.