More than double the number of healthcare workers reported harassment at work in 2022 than in 2018, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) said when sharing the results of a recent survey in an October 2023 Vital Signs report. Harassment may include threats, bullying, verbal abuse, or other actions from patients and coworkers that create a hostile work environment, all of which have important implications for health worker mental health, CDC said.

Health worker burnout was at crisis levels prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, CDC said. After analyzing the survey results, CDC found that the pandemic presented unique challenges that may have further impaired health worker mental health and increased their intent to leave their jobs.

CDC said that its report is the first to describe and compare self-reported well-being and working conditions for health workers, other essential workers, and all other workers before (2018) and after (2022) the start of the pandemic. The findings show that U.S. health workers have continued to face a mental health crisis, experiencing greater declines on a range of mental health outcomes than other workers from 2018–2022.

“We depend on our nation’s health workers, and they must be supported. Employers can act now by modifying working conditions associated with burnout and poor mental health outcomes in health settings,” CDC Chief Medical Officer Debra Houry, MD, MPH, said.

“CDC’s efforts to address health worker mental health come at the right time, as we see how health workers have self-reported a unique increase in poor mental health, especially after a global pandemic,” L. Casey Chosewood, MD, MPH, director of the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health’s (NIOSH’s) Office for Total Worker Health, said. “In this study, we saw that when working conditions are positive, and where health workers are supported and have the potential to thrive, poor mental health outcomes were less likely. Employers can make a critical difference here by taking preventive actions and improving difficult working conditions that are linked with anxiety, depression, and burnout.”

On October 31, CDC announced the Impact Wellbeing Campaign, a new initiative in collaboration with NIOSH to support hospitals as they undertake those actions. Institutions can follow Impact Wellbeing’s actionable steps to fine-tune quality improvements, establish new workflows, and help staff feel safe seeking help. Some of the resources include:

  • NIOSH Worker Well-Being Questionnaire, which helps leaders understand how workforce is doing and identify ways to improve healthcare worker well-being
  • Leadership Storytelling Guide from the Health Action Alliance, which empowers leaders talk publicly about getting help for their own mental health concerns and encourage staff to do the same
  • Total Worker Health® Strategies, which trains frontline supervisors to help their staff balance their work and home responsibilities using supportive supervision

“Although some causes of burnout may take time to address, there are many feasible ways to champion a healthy workforce and hospital system,” Chosewood said. “By identifying and implementing practical operational adjustments, hospital leaders can help healthcare workers continue doing what they do best—delivering the highest quality patient care.”

Funded by the COVID-19 American Rescue Plan of 2021 and building on momentum from the passage of the Dr. Lorna Breen Health Care Provider Protection Act, Impact Wellbeing is a tangible example of ONS health policy advocacy in action.