Alleviating Burnout Among Health Professions Students

What is burnout?

Burnout looks like overwhelm and detachment. Savanna Patenaude explains, “stress leads to burnout and burnout is this awful thing that leads to poor patient outcomes.” For the past semester, Savanna Patenaude and Sandra Schipelliti (P2 students) have researched the impact of burnout on students and health professionals. As students in the Wellness and Integrative Medicine Track, they stumbled into this research after modifying their elective choice. Neither held a special interest in burnout at the start, but now, talking to them, they possess an unwavering belief in the importance of this research.

Savanna and Sandra define burnout as “the pathological syndrome in which emotional depletion and maladaptive detachment develop secondary to chronic occupational stress, that may be associated by a decline in mental and physical health as well as work performance.” Symptoms of burnout include exhaustion, cynicism, and decline of professional efficacy.

Their own experiences and their knowledge of burnout have thrust on them a responsibility to educate and shepherd their classmates to understand its impact. Not only that, but they envision changes to academic policies and the curriculum, building resilience amongst students.

Their research

“So far we’ve done a comprehensive literature review,” Savanna updates me on the progress they’ve made in their research. In one study they found, half of medical students had symptoms of major depressive disorder. A 2016 study by the Journal of American Medical Association found that 27.2% of medical students had depression or depressive symptoms, with 11.1% expressing suicidal ideation. Such numbers depict the intensity of the schooling and the lack of structured support for these students.

“The prevalence is there,” Savanna concludes, “so now we are going to move to our student population.” Sandra continues, “and that’s where we are going to do focus groups and a couple of surveys to see where our students are at.” At the time of the interview, they were awaiting approval for conducting focus groups, but now, with the coronavirus pandemic creating unknowns for the rest of the semester, they may need to push off their focus group or use a virtual medium.

Understanding the symptoms and warnings of burnout helps health professions students to manage a fast-paced curriculum, but it also proves essential when entering their professions. “The work performance part of it is definitely important because we saw in our literature that it increases patient mortality,” Sandra informs me. “Directly,” Savanna jumps in. With that in mind, they want to help their classmates learn stress management skills.

The Wellness Task Force

One way they want to try to reduce symptoms of burnout at the College of Pharmacy is through community building. “Isolation,” Sandra emphasized, “is the place where the burnout can build and fester and all of the symptoms can lead to more detrimental things. Because if you are not able to talk about it then you can’t fix it.” Students and faculty often find the community at the College of Pharmacy uniquely supportive, but, with such a serious issue as burnout, the Wellness Task Force seeks to find new ways to ensure students feel seen. As Sandra and Savanna throw around ideas, they seem to revolve around inter-class friendships and older mentors.

Whether the College of Pharmacy will be able to implement the changes the Wellness Task Force hopes to see this year is uncertain, but they have noticed increased response to mental wellness from professors. When asked about feeling supported by professors, they began recounting instances of their professors accommodating students in the name of student wellness and mental health. This increased awareness from faculty seems to indicate a path for adjustments to the support systems in place.

Cultivating an awareness of burnout and mental health at the College of Pharmacy not only helps prevent overwhelm among students but enables them to educate their future patients about stress management. As health care professionals, students will need to model healthy habits for their patients. Savanna explains: “You are practicing what you preach. Knowing that you can implement these behaviors to do well all-around and then you can pass that along to your patients.”

Savanna and Sandra have a vision for wellness at the College of Pharmacy, extending beyond their time at the college, “We are toying with the idea of creating a wellness committee, like a student organization, that would involve faculty and students, to take the place of this for the long term.” The conversation around burnout will need to continue as “the stressors are just going to change,” Sandra explains. Setting up a permanent committee will enable the College of Pharmacy to adjust to different generations of students. Burnout will continue to threaten health professionals, but the College of Pharmacy is up to the task of equipping students with the tools to recognize symptoms and manage stress.

For any students interested in learning more about burnout or participating in their research, contact Savanna Patenaude or Sandra Schipelliti.