Infection Control Today's Round Table Focuses on Burnout: Recognition, Stigma, and Prevention

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Frontline infection preventionists (IPs) face burnout due to challenges in public health. This Round Table on IP Burnout discusses strategies to prevent and address this critical issue. The IPs emphasize the importance of understanding burnout, recognizing signs, addressing stigma, and implementing multilayered prevention strategies for both individuals and organizations.

In the fight against infectious diseases, infection preventionists (IPs) work on the front lines, showing steadfast dedication to public health. However, the demands of this crucial role pose significant challenges, leading to a troubling issue—burnout among these health care professionals.

In a Round Table on IP Burnout, Infection Control Today® (ICT®) spoke with 4 IPs on how to prevent burnout. In this first installment, the IPs discussed the prevalent issue of burnout among IPs and other professionals, examining the contributing factors and emphasizing the urgent need for effective strategies to alleviate its impact.

The IPs in the Round Table discussion include the following:

  • Brenna Doran, PhD, MA, ACC, CIC, is currently the system director of hospital epidemiology and infection prevention at the University of California, San Francisco, as well as founder and CEO of Innovative Partners Institute, a coaching and consulting company.
Infection Control Today's topic of the month: Mental Health

Infection Control Today's topic of the month: Mental Health

  • Isis Lamphier, MPH, CIC, is the manager of infection prevention at Moffitt Cancer Center in Tampa, Florida, and a member of ICT’s Editorial Advisory Board (EAB).
  • Heather Saunders, MPH, RN, CIC, is the senior nurse program research manager at Johns Hopkins University in the Department of Infection Disease in Baltimore, Maryland. She is also the owner of Broad Street Prevention and a member of ICT’s EAB.
  • Sharon Ward-Fore, MS, BS, MT(ASCP), CIC, FAPIC, an infection prevention consultant, ICT’s EAB member, and ICT’s 2023 Educator of the Year.

“I think we think we know what [burnout] means or how to recognize this,” Saunders explains during the Round Table. “But we've been constantly redefining this definition and understanding it better than we ever have before, especially in light of all the work stress that we've experienced over the past 4 years. … [Burnout] is chronic stress, leading to an overwhelming sense of exhaustion and cynicism about one's job. And that's what I want our audience to hear today is that chronic stress is not burnout, but chronic stress leads to burnout.”

Lamphier explains what managers and coworkers should do when they suspect someone has burnout. “It's also important to know the team that you work with, and looking for signs or symptoms that individuals might be experiencing burnout or stress and addressing them when you notice them is also beneficial. And having those hard discussions as well [is important]. If you know someone who's a lone IP, it can be a very difficult and daunting task to reach out to those IPs who work by themselves because they might not have someone who's in a similar field [who] can check in on them, like an IP [with] a team [does].”

Ward-Fore says she worries about the stigma of burnout. “My husband is a psychiatrist. We talk about stigma all the time. And it's still there, even though we're [as a society] more cognizant of how important our mental wellbeing is, especially coming out of—or maybe not out of—our pandemic. Those are things we need to address; how do we remove that stigma?”

Doran agrees and explains what does not work to get over burnout. “There's a lot of shame around burnout. There is a lot of misconception that burnout is really the responsibility and the problem of the individual. When we're talking about burnout, if you're sharing that with peers, sharing that with your coworkers, there can be this sense again of shame and guilt, and they think, “I should just change my attitude,” I should just go do some meditation classes [or] get an app. What we've learned about burnout is it's so much deeper; you're not going to meditate yourself out of it.”

Saunders says burnout is more than an individual or managerial problem. “We get back to [burnout is] not just an individual-level problem. For us to be able to say we need the soft skills, we need IPs to make the relationships go to the units. In addition to data management, we're saying that we need leadership, and we need systems and organizations that are going to support our IP departments. So we do prevent the snowball into burnout.”

(Quotes have been edited for clarity.)

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