Burnout: solutions from 10,000 feet

As the spring semester comes to an end, I often find myself joking with our first-year graduate students, “Welcome to grad school!” After a year in the lab, they have begun to understand the demands and stressors of our program. They are gaining unwanted weight, losing sleep, and becoming anxious about their results. We shrug these off as facts of life and even consider them a right of passage, but in reality, they are symbols of a much more serious and deep-rooted problem. Burnout.

Photo by Patrick Feller under Creative Commons License

Burnout, caused by extended periods of stress that lead to physical and emotional exhaustion and a decline in mental well-being, has become a hot topic for those in workforce leadership roles. Importantly, it has become a relevant term in the research world. A study published earlier this year in Nature highlighted the growing number of graduate students with mental health problems, including severe anxiety and depression. Social media sharing of the article began a storm of comments and sharing, most of which further supported the findings. Gaia Cantelli recently wrote an article discussing how burnout occurs in science and some ways to cope with it. She also addresses prevention in a previous article. In response to the consequences of untreated burnout symptoms, students have begun to take action in groups. However, leaders within the scientific community may want to begin working toward solutions at a higher level as well.

Unlike science, healthcare leaders have had some success in identifying and addressing the topic of burnout. It’s easy to understand why burnout may be so prevalent in healthcare with long working hours, large patient volumes, and extremely high-stress situations. Along with accrediting institutions, these leaders have identified burnout as a liability due to the importance of their product – the lives and general well-being of their patients. When physicians and nurses are experiencing burnout, they are more prone to make mistakes in their care of patients, which can lead to injuries and even death. The Joint Commission, a nonprofit entity that evaluates and certifies almost 21,000 hospitals in the United States, has for many years required hospitals to maintain a culture of patient safety and quality care. Hospitals address this requirement by distributing patient safety culture surveys to their employees, historically The Hospital Survey on Patient Safety Culture or the Safety Attitudes Questionnaire (SAQ) Survey, to gather data and identify problems to be addressed in their current culture. These surveys are anonymous to promote full disclosure. Questions are measured on a Likert scale and include topics such as the frequency at which errors are reported, management’s response to error reporting, and if the unit has adequate staffing. It may seem simple, but these surveys have proved to be powerful tools in healthcare when used properly.

The newly emerging SCORE Survey, specifically designed to replace the SAQ Survey, has added questions addressing the topic of burnout. These include the frequency of skipping meals while at work, the quality of meals at work, the frequency of breaks, and late arrival home from work. You may find yourself reflecting upon these topics, realizing your answers do not model perfect health. This is why asking these types of questions is so important. Employers can use the surveys to identify areas for improvement. The biology department may find that their students and faculty are completely skipping meals whereas chemistry finds that their students and faculty are eating, but poorly. The intervention for these findings will be different, but could both wield large impact on burnout. Meals are important to people, their health, and happiness. Everyone knows the best way to lure a graduate student to a seminar is with snacks.

Much like healthcare, science is experiencing threats from burnout in terms of productivity and retention. Last year, the NSF’s Survey of Earned Doctorates found that only about 20% of PhD graduates in physical and earth sciences were committed to academic jobs post-graduation. This is partly due to a shortage of jobs, but discussion about graduates purposely leaving science has also been attributed to this number. Even if they do pursue a scientific career, scientists in a state of burnout may be wasting grant dollars on poorly executed experiments. They may be missing important interpretations if they are unable to efficiently read the literature or their data. So why aren’t organizations that employ scientists using simple tools like the SCORE Survey?

It may be worth the investment to improve the productivity of scientists, especially those that rely solely on grant funding. Identifying specific causes of burnout, and then working to address them, would likely improve the efficiency of grant spending, overall productivity, and the morale of a department or organization. Using the surveys as they are written for healthcare organizations would not work, but modification could lead to a powerful tool within the scientific community. Scientists are generally very passionate about their work. Therefore, addressing burnout would increase their passion for going to work as well.

The views and opinions expressed in this blog are the views of the author(s) and do not represent the official policy or position of ASCB.


About the Author:

Ashtyn Zinn is a Ph.D student at the University of Toledo in Biological Sciences. Her research focuses on the dynamics of cell migration. Ashtyn is also completing a Master’s of Public Health Administration