Volume 37 Number 5 | October 2023
Letycia C. Nuñez Argote, PhD, CPH, MLS(ASCP)CM, ASCLS Diversity Advocacy Council Past Chair
Recently evidence has emerged indicating that stress and burnout, along with staffing shortages, the COVID-19 pandemic, and financial stress, are at the top of the reasons for turnover and attrition of health professionals (Anderson-Mutch, 2023). The risk of losing highly trained and passionate workers, including medical laboratory professionals, is of great concern. As a laboratory professional and educator, I strongly advocate for every worker to utilize the tools and support at our disposal to succeed and thrive at work.
Burnout, as defined by the World Health Organization, is not a medical condition but a workplace phenomenon. It is a syndrome caused by chronic stress at the workplace that has not been addressed or managed (WHO, 2019). People experiencing burnout display signs of emotional exhaustion lasting extended periods of time; lack of personal accomplishment or professional inefficacy; and depersonalization through cynicism, withdrawal, and negative feelings toward work (WHO, 2019). In the past 10 years, reports of burnout in health professionals have spiked, with data showing up to 85 percent of laboratory professionals reporting they have experienced burnout (Kroft, 2020). Another study that measured burnout in the U.S. laboratory workforce found that 74 percent of respondents were experiencing moderate, high, or severe burnout, and burnout was linked to their work environment (Nuñez-Argote, 2022).
In speaking to fellow laboratory professionals regarding issues that affect the health and wellbeing of our colleagues, I found that several of them were able to overcome feelings of stress and burnout by accessing resources through their Employee Assistance Program (EAP). EAPs are confidential and include benefits that help employees navigate challenges in both their personal and work lives. These programs have existed in the United States since the 1940s, and their current structure follows the blueprint laid out in 1970 by the Hughes Act, which mandated that all federal agencies institute these benefits for employees and their family members (OPM, 2023).
EAPs vary by provider and employer, but in general these programs include assistance with a variety of individual and organizational management services. Individual interventions can include counseling to help solve short-term problems with mental health and wellness. These programs also can refer employees for diagnosis, treatment, and assistance in events of crisis and to help prevent these events. They can help with referrals to childcare, elder care, nutrition programs, retirement coaching, and many other services. In my personal journey, I have utilized these services to access a mental health provider to help address post-partum depression. I also received a referral for legal services.
Most people do not think about finding a lawyer until there is an emergent event, and even then it is hard to know where to start, especially for those of us who have moved away from family and friends for work. In my case the EAP provided me with a list of legal advisors in my area; I ended up using one of them and received a discount on the legal fees as part of the referral. Another major stressor, financial planning, was something we were able to sort out using the EAP, and it has made an enormous difference in relieving the anxiety of planning for our short- and long-term financial goals.
“Let us make it the norm to use wellness services available at work and encourage each other to seek the support that is already there.”
If you work as a manager in the laboratory, the EAP can also provide coaching and group intervention solutions. In the short-staffed, stressful clinical laboratory environment of today, small problems and disagreements can turn big fast if not adequately addressed. But managers may not have immediate solutions to these problems. EAP services can support laboratory leaders by providing tips on management of troubled employees, effective communication, and integration with appropriate resources.
Like everything else in the workplace, EAP services are not perfect and can vary from employer to employer. Some in the industry consider that this benefit model is outdated due to its “crisis-oriented” nature and that a mental health continuum beyond the immediate need should be instituted (Modern Health, 2023). Also, one of the downsides of EAPs can be the limited number of available mental health providers in different geographic regions, such as rural areas, which makes it difficult to access care right away. Unfortunately, this is a nationwide issue in the United States with the scarcity of behavioral health providers being the consequence of low investment from public and private insurers and employers (Counts, 2023). Another big issue is the low utilization by employees. “Mental health benefits are only effective to the degree they are used” (Modern Health, 2023). But importantly, workplace culture is a main factor that determines the rate of utilization of EAPs (Guhin, 2021). Leadership in the workplace should drive change toward a more wellness-minded culture and emphasize the importance of utilizing mental health counseling and other resources, otherwise the usefulness of EAPs will continue to be limited.
So, have you used your EAP benefits yet? If you have not, you should really consider it. As healthcare workers we care about the safety and wellbeing of others, but sometimes we forget that we need care, too. We laboratory professionals have our own workplace challenges and have labored through a very traumatic time. The risk of experiencing burnout is omnipresent, and it is okay to feel tired and anxious due to it all. But it is also important to take time to address our concerns and feel better.
Let us make it the norm to use wellness services available at work and encourage each other to seek the support that is already there. If you need help, even just to figure out how to get started, contact HR at your institution to ask about your EAP or log on to your hospital’s website, find the EAP’s number, and give them a call. I hope this message encourages you to connect with your well-earned and deserved resources and to take care of yourself.
- Anderson-Mutch, K. (2023). Top 5 Reasons Healthcare Workers Are Quitting. Smartlinx Healthcare Workforce Platform Blog. https://www.smartlinx.com/resources/blog/top-5-reasonshealthcare-workers-are-quitting
- Counts, N. (2023). Understanding the U.S. Behavioral Health Workforce Shortage. Improving Health Care Quality. The Commonwealth Fund. https://www.commonwealthfund.org/publications/explainer/2023/may/understanding-us-behavioralhealth-workforce-shortage
- Guhin, M. (Host). (2021, December 16). Increasing Workplace EAP Utilization (No. 16). [Audio podcast episode]. In Workplace Matters. Healthier Workforce Center of the Midwest. https://soundcloud.com/healthierworkforcecenter/increasingworkplace-eap-utilization
- Kroft, S. H. (2020). Well-Being, Burnout, and the Clinical Laboratory. American Journal of Clinical Pathology, 153(4), 422–424. https://doi.org/10.1093/ajcp/aqaa022
- Modern Health. 2023. Employee Assistance Programs: What Are the Disadvantages? Minds in motion Blog. Modern Health Inc. https://www.modernhealth.com/post/disadvantages-ofemployee-assistance-programs
- Nuñez-Argote, L. C. (2022). Work-Related Health Burdens and Turnover Intention of Laboratory Professionals (Order No. 29323107). Available from Dissertations & Theses @ University of Kansas. (2742644226). https://www.proquest.com/dissertations-theses/work-related-health-burdens-turnoverintention/docview/2742644226/se-2
- OPM – United States Office of Personnel Management. (2023). Employee Assistance Programs. Work-Life. https://www.opm.gov/policy-data-oversight/worklife/employee-assistanceprograms/#url=Mental-Health
- WHO – World Health Organization. (2019). Burn-out an “occupational phenomenon”: International classification of diseases. World Health Organization. https://www.who.int/news/item/28-05-2019-burn-out-an-occupationalphenomenon-international-classification-of-diseases
Letycia C. Nuñez Argote is Clinical Associate Professor at the University of Kansas Medical Center in Kansas City, Kansas.
Photo credit: Image generated using the prompt, “A burnout laboratory worker abstract digital media,” by Microsoft, Bing Image Creator, 2023 (https://labs.openai.com)