SAN DIEGO—Before the pandemic, an estimated one-third of oncologists worldwide suffered a high level of burnout. Cancer physicians face many of the same risk factors as their colleagues—high workloads, lack of autonomy, and no support—along with the added pressure of working in a medical field where patients often die. Then COVID-19 hit, and the burnout crisis got even worse.
This tide can be reversed with a focus on best practices and resilience, a mental health researcher told cancer professionals at the September 2022 annual meeting of the Association of VA Hematology/Oncology. Assessments, long-term interventions, and communication are all key, said Fay J. Hlubocky, PhD, MA, a clinical health psychologist and ethicist at the University of Chicago.
Even simple actions like taking time for “mindful moments” and checking in with a colleague can make a difference, she said. But institutions must act, she said. “Long-term tailored strategies are incredibly important to promote well-being.”
Hlubocky, who led an American Society of Clinical Oncology committee on burnout prior to the pandemic, noted that statistics about burnout in American medicine and oncology specifically, are grim. In 2017, a systematic review and meta-analysis found that significant numbers of oncologists suffered from high burnout (32%), high psychiatric morbidity (27%), depression (at least 12%), and alcohol misuse (as many as 30%).
The pandemic piled on more stressors. In the second half of 2020, researchers interviewed 25 American oncologists in focus groups and found that their “underlying oncologist burnout exacerbated stressors associated with disruptions in care, education, research, financial practice health, and telemedicine. Many feared delays in cancer screening, diagnosis, and treatment [and] strongly considered working part-time or taking early retirement.”
As one participant put it, “everyone is seeing a lot of death and heartache and social isolation and anger that they’re not used to encountering and in very new and different ways.”
Major contributors to oncologist burnout, Hlubocky said, include moral distress, moral injury, and compassion fatigue. “Moral distress occurs when that individual believes he or she knows the right thing to do, but institutional constraints make it really difficult to do what is right,” Hlubocky said. “The individual is aware of the moral problem, acknowledges and takes moral responsibility, makes some moral judgments, but yet—as a result of these constraints — participates in perceived moral wrongdoing.”
Moral injury refers to the damage that can be caused by moral distress or by witnessing acts that violate morals, such as during military service. Compassion fatigue, meanwhile, is defined by the American Stress Institute as “a low level, chronic clouding of caring and concern for others in your life.”
What can be done? Hlubocky highlighted multiple interventions, such as adjustment of work patterns, cognitive behavioral therapy, and training in mindfulness, relaxation, and communication. One strategy is to adopt multiple in-person interventions simultaneously.
But first it’s crucial for administrators to understand the problem in a specific workplace: “You have to know what’s going on in your organization to intervene on it,” she said. “There are multiple tools that have been validated in other health care fields and can be used on a regular basis over time to measure burnout, satisfaction, and engagement.”