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Verbal abuse of healthcare workers has been up — as have their mental health problems

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Health care workers across the country are facing a mental health crisis. A new survey from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention finds that burnout, anxiety and depression have gotten worse for health care workers in the past five years. NPR's Pien Huang reports.

PIEN HUANG, BYLINE: Sarah Warren started her nursing career at a Florida hospital in 2018. It was challenging from the start.

SARAH WARREN: Within my first six months as a nurse, I actually was choked with my stethoscope by a patient.

HUANG: She kept working through the thick of the pandemic. She worked mandatory overtime, straining her body, turning and lifting patients that were three times her size. Over three more years, it led to serious burnout and injury.

WARREN: And I got to a point at the end of 2021 where I just didn't recognize myself anymore. I had given everything, emotionally and mentally, to this role.

HUANG: Warren's experience of extreme stress and burnout are not unique.

CASEY CHOSEWOOD: To label our current and long-standing challenge a crisis is an understatement.

HUANG: That's Dr. Casey Chosewood, director of the CDC's Office for Worker Health.

CHOSEWOOD: Many of our nation's health care systems are at their breaking point.

HUANG: Chosewood is co-author of a new survey published by CDC that shows the mental health crisis got a lot worse during the pandemic. Nearly half of the health care workers surveyed reported burnout last year.

Dr. Deborah Houry, CDC's chief medical officer, says workplace harassment is also up.

DEBRA HOURY: In the health care setting, it could be threats of violence from patients, family members upset about a long wait - just as frustrations - but it increased. It nearly doubled during this time.

HUANG: That harassment is linked to higher levels of anxiety, depression and burnout. Nearly half of health care workers said they were probably going to look for new jobs. CDC is calling for health care systems to take immediate steps to address worker burnout by building trust with employees and increasing supervisor support. Sarah Warren, the nurse from Florida, thinks the field also needs some new laws and standards. She left her nursing job in 2022, and she misses it.

WARREN: What I would give to be able to just care for my patients - but I can't do that. And so many other health care workers are in that same position. The system has placed us there.

HUANG: She started a nonprofit that works to get better conditions and mental health support for health care workers.

Pien Huang, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Pien Huang is a health reporter on the Science desk. She was NPR's first Reflect America Fellow, working with shows, desks and podcasts to bring more diverse voices to air and online.

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