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Burnout in allied health

Burnout Is A Huge Problem In Allied Health. Here’s What Needs To Change.

For allied health care workers, the pressure is intense and relentless. They are constantly surrounded by back-to-back patients in need, and often see first-hand the devastating effects of illness and injury.

In my world—occupational therapy—therapists are on the go all day. 

There’s a long list of clients to be seen, many with complex needs, where the occupational therapist can only scratch the surface given time constraints. Then there’s the ridiculous amount of red tape and paperwork to achieve basic client outcomes. This can take a toll on even the most dedicated and compassionate employees. 

And that was before the global pandemic hit.

The pandemic only exacerbated the problem, as allied health care workers were—as with many industries—suddenly thrust into almost three years of uncertainty, burnout, and an unprecedented level of stress. Now, allied health workers are at breaking point. They are overworked and feeling completely unsupported with little choice but to ‘soldier on’ or leave the profession they love.

This is an unsustainable situation which needs to be urgently addressed. Allied health care workers are the backbone of our healthcare system and we cannot afford to lose them. We need to find a way to support them so that they can continue to do the amazing work that they do.

So, what can we do about allied health burnout? 

Acknowledge that burnout in healthcare is higher than in other sectors

Reports indicate that burnout among healthcare professionals is typically higher than in other sectors, from 30% to as high as 64%, pre-pandemic. 

Left unchecked, burnout can lead to more serious problems—left unchecked in healthcare, it can have tragic consequences and damaging flow-on effects on the health workforce, compromising the quality and continuity of care provided. 

Not to mention, research indicates that workplace bullying across the healthcare industry is a problem, with as many as 33% of workers reporting incidents. This particularly impacts women.

 

Rethink the way we work and make structural changes

I could’ve written this article a decade ago and it still would have been relevant today. That in itself is a problem. We’ve known about the issue of healthcare burnout and allied health burnout for a long time, and yet little has changed. 

Thirty years ago when I started my career as an occupational therapist, I was excited to work. But ten years into my career, I was exhausted and burnt out, just like everyone else around me. I was struggling to spend quality time with my family and friends and no matter how many extra hours I put in, I could only do so much within the system. Paperwork over patient outcomes, cost-cutting over care, the writing was on the wall and I didn’t like what it said. 

So, I took a leap and started my own business or ‘private practice’ in 2002. 

But before long, I realised the problem was bigger than me. I was just one person trying to swim against the tide. I wanted to explore new ways of working that would promote, rather than deplete, the health and well-being of therapists. After all, it’s the very thing we are trying to achieve with our clients. 

So, in 2012, I founded Australia’s first and only occupational therapy franchise business—ActivOT—investing in health professionals and turning them into successful business owners without the burnout. Back then, franchising in allied health was virtually unheard of; it still is! But I was convinced it was the answer. Not only could it provide much-needed support and guidance for occupational therapists, but it could deliver better outcomes for our clients.

But we need to do more to change the way we work if we’re going to address healthcare burnout. We need systemic change and a wholesale rethink of the way we work. 

Disrupting the health care sector is never easy. It’s a complex, risk-averse sector with its own unique challenges. But it can be done. 

 

Reduce unnecessary paperwork

In my business, we work hard to remove the burden of paperwork so that franchisees and therapists can focus on their core work: treating clients. Of course, there will always be some paperwork but we must try to streamline and simplify it as much as possible. This way, we can reduce the administrative burden on our healthcare professionals and give them more time to focus on patient care. It’s often the little things that make the biggest difference and this is one area where we can have a big impact.

 

Increase flexibility 

When we feel like we’re on a hamster wheel, going round and round with no end in sight, it’s tough to stay motivated and well. This is why increased flexibility is so important. It gives us a sense of control over our lives and our work. 

With women making up 94% of the occupational therapy workforce in Australia, there’s an urgent need for more family-friendly and flexible workplaces. Although it’s unlikely that all workers can set their own schedules, we must explore ways to increase flexibility in allied health.

The cumulative effect of all this is not only a reduction in burnout but also greater retention of quality caregivers and the development of a healthier workforce.  

 

It’s ok to say no!

One of the biggest problems in healthcare is that we are afraid to say no. We feel like we have to do everything and be everything to everyone. But this is simply not sustainable.

We need to start setting boundaries and learning to say no. This can be difficult, but it’s important for our own wellbeing. If we don’t respect our own time and energy, we won’t be able to give our best to our patients. 

 

Know the area you feel comfortable practicing in – do what makes your heart sing! 

You can’t be all things to all people! When you enjoy your work and master your craft, it shows in the quality of care you provide. When you are passionate about what you do, it rarely feels like work. So, find your niche and make sure you know your stuff. Whether it’s working with a particular patient or using a specific therapy modality, focus on what you’re good at and what you enjoy. This way, you can provide the best possible care to your patients and avoid burnout. 

 

Treat allied health professionals like human beings

In too many cases, health care workers are treated as commodities. They are seen as replaceable parts in a system rather than human beings with their own needs and aspirations. This needs to change.

We need to start valuing our health care workers and treating them with the respect they deserve. We need to invest in their training and development, and we need to create working environments that are conducive to wellbeing.

In my view, it’s time for a radical rethink of how we do things in allied health. We need to look at different models of care and find ways to support our healthcare workers so they can provide the best care possible. 

Let’s start valuing our health workforce. They deserve nothing less.

 

Helen what occupational therapist Helen Whait is an award-winning occupational therapist and innovator, the founder of ActivOT, Australia’s first occupational therapy franchise and a national finalist in the 2022 Australian Allied Health Awards.

What are your thoughts on burnout as it relates to the allied health space? Please leave a comment below, or add to the conversation on our Community Forum. To receive regular updates on allied health topics, events, jobs and services, subscribe to our Allied Health Insights  newsletter.

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