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Home > Research Articles > Therapist's Burnout Can Hurt Patient Satisfaction

Reuters Health

Saturday, October 12, 2002

Therapist's Burnout Can Hurt Patient Satisfaction

October 11, 2002 05:23 PM ET

By Charnicia E. Huggins

NEW YORK (Reuters Health)

In fact, burnout among teams of mental health professionals may be associated with lower patient satisfaction, the report indicates.

The findings add "another log to the fire" when it comes to the importance of burnout, lead study author Dr. Andrew N. Garman of Rush University in Chicago, Illinois told Reuters Health. Burnout doesn't just affect managers' "ability to keep staff, but really affects the quality of service that we provide," he said.

Garman and his team investigated staff burnout and patient satisfaction in a study of 31 behavioral health teams, made up of a total of 333 mental health professionals, and their patients. The teams were from public hospitals and community health centers in the midwestern United States.

Overall, patients were less likely to be satisfied with their care if their therapist and his or her team of caregivers reported feeling emotionally drained and overwhelmed by their work, the investigators report in the Journal of Occupational Health Psychology.

Emotional exhaustion is the "heart of the burnout profile," Garman said. "If staff are more emotionally exhausted they have less of themselves to give to their clients and the clients pick up on this, and it affects their (the clients') perceptions of the kind of care they feel that they're getting."

Indeed, patients who noticed the workers' emotional exhaustion reported less satisfaction with their treatment, with the environment in which they received treatment and with the extent to which their treatment prepared them for autonomy, for example decreased their risk of being rehospitalized or prepared them to get a job.

"If we let our staff burn out, the whole treatment enchilada will be viewed more negatively," Garman said.

The other two components of staff burnout--the worker's sense of personal accomplishment and level of depersonalization, or their emotional distance between themselves and their patients and their work, also seemed to be related to patient satisfaction, the report indicates.

For example, if the therapist believed that his or her work was valuable and that he or she was making a positive contribution to the team, the patient was more satisfied and viewed the therapist more positively.

That sense of personal accomplishment also seemed to act as a buffer for the worker, to prevent their burnout from getting worse, Garman said.

Yet, in an unexpected finding, the mental health professionals' level of emotional distance--whether high or low--did not seem to greatly influence patient satisfaction, the researchers report.

"Patients will notice if the staff is emotionally exhausted or if they're getting a lot out of what they're doing," Garman said. The staff's level of emotional distance, however, "doesn't really seem to affect service."

In light of the findings, care providers who are interested in improving the quality of their service need to first determine how emotionally exhausted their staff are, and then consider to what extent staff feel the work they are doing is important and valued, Garman said.

He added that the findings may also have broader implications considering the widely reported shortage of nurses and other healthcare professionals across the United States. Many hospitals are forced to "do more with less," Garman said. Thus, the workers' burnout risk may increase.

"Healthcare is a tough business, and burnout should be expected as a potential danger," Garman said. "If we want to improve satisfaction we need to reduce burnout in our staff."

SOURCE: Journal of Occupational Health Psychology 2002;7:235-241.