It’s not only medical laboratory technicians, healthcare workers across the board continue to deal with extreme pressures that preceded the pandemic
Burnout in healthcare is a constant problem, especially in overstressed clinical laboratories and anatomic pathology groups. To raise awareness about the plight of medical laboratory technicians (MLTs) and other frontline workers in the healthcare industry, a former lab tech recounted her experience during the COVID-19 pandemic that led to burnout and her departure from the lab profession during 2020-2021.
Suzanna Bator was formerly a laboratory technician with the Cleveland Clinic and with MetroHealth System in Cleveland, Ohio. Her essay in Daily Nurse, titled, “The Hidden Healthcare Heroes: A Lab Techs Journey Through the Pandemic,” is a personalized, human look at the strain clinical laboratory technicians were put under during the pandemic. Her story presents the quandary of how to keep these critical frontline healthcare workers from experiencing burnout and leaving the field.
“We techs were left unsupported and unmentored throughout the pandemic. No one cared if we were learning or growing in our job, and there was little encouragement for us to enter training or residency programs. We were just expendable foot soldiers: this is not a policy that leads to long-term job retention,” she wrote.
Clinical laboratory leaders and pathology group managers may find valuable insights in Bator’s essay that they can use when developing worker support programs for their own clinical laboratories and practices.
“The pressure never let up. No matter how mind-numbing and repetitive the work could get, we had to work with constant vigilance, as there was absolutely no room for error,” Suzanna Bator wrote in Daily Nurse. Burnout in clinical laboratories is an ongoing problem that increased during the COVID-19 pandemic. (Photo copyright: Daily Nurse.)
Hopeful Beginnings and Eager to Help
During the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, folks in every industry stepped up. Fashion designers tasked their haute couture seamstresses with making personal protective equipment (PPE), neighbors brought food and supplies to their immunosuppressed or elderly neighbors, and healthcare workers took on enormous workloads outside of their own departments and traditional responsibilities, The New York Times reported.
When Bator joined the Cleveland Clinic’s COVID-19 team she had no clinical lab tech accreditations. Nevertheless, she and 12 other non-accredited hires were quickly put onto the second and third shifts to keep up with SARS-CoV-2 test demands.
“In the beginning, I was so happy to be helping and working during the pandemic. I felt proud to be on the front lines, honing my skills and discovering what it was like to work under intense pressure. My work was good even when the work was hard. There was no room for error and no time to waste.”
At the Cleveland Clinic, Bator and her colleagues did not experience the equipment and supply shortages other clinics faced, at least not in the beginning of the pandemic. That began to change in late 2020.
Unrelenting Pace and Supply Shortages as Pandemic Grew
Despite their state-of-the-art equipment at the Cleveland Clinic, problems began to arise as the pandemic wore on.
“The machines we worked on were never meant to be run at this intensity and would frequently break down during the second shift. Those of us on the third shift were then left to deal with these problems despite our lack of technical training. Even worse, there were no supervisors on staff to help us problem-solve or troubleshoot, which only added to the pressure,” Bator noted.
And the high demand for testing left little room for new lab techs to hone any other skills.
“The pressure never let up. No matter how mind-numbing and repetitive the work could get, we had to work with constant vigilance, as there was absolutely no room for error,” she added.
Eventually, Bator left the Cleveland Clinic for a county hospital to “get off the graveyard shift and begin working on more than just COVID testing,” she wrote. However, soon after her move the Omicron variant hit, and she was once again running COVID tests.
Six months later she had had enough. She burned out and “dropped out of the industry after only a few years,” she wrote. And she was not the only one.
“The [Cleveland] Clinic began to hemorrhage techs who left for better opportunities at different hospitals or in different fields. Of my original 15-or-so-member team two years ago, only four remain in the same department, and only about half remain in the clinical lab field at all,” Bator wrote.
Burnout in Clinical Laboratories
Worker burnout is a state of mental and/or physical exhaustion caused by a heavy workload. Those experiencing burnout may feel emotionally overwhelmed, anxious, and depressed. Burnout can manifest in physical, mental, and emotional symptoms.
Burnout in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic is an issue affecting all facets of healthcare. According to Forbes, a 2022 report by Elsevier Health found that 47% of US healthcare workers plan to leave their current role in the next two to three years, in some measure due to the enormous pressures healthcare workers face.
And workers are not the only ones paying attention to burnout. On May 23, 2022, the United States Surgeon General, Vice Admiral Vivek Murthy, MD, issued a Surgeon General’s Advisory highlighting the need to address worker burnout.
“COVID-19 has been a uniquely traumatic experience for the health workforce and for their families, pushing them past their breaking point,” Murthy noted. “Now, we owe them a debt of gratitude and action. And if we fail to act, we will place our nation’s health at risk. This Surgeon General’s Advisory outlines how we can all help heal those who have sacrificed so much to help us heal.”
Healthcare workers were facing high levels of burnout before 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic only made the issue worse. The National Academies of Medicine (NAM) reported in 2019 that worker burnout had reached a “crisis level,” and that during the pandemic, half of all healthcare workers reported symptoms of at least one mental health condition.
Training Programs Needed to Offset Worker Shortages and Retain Staff
As Bator reported in Daily Nurse, “The American Society of Clinical Pathology (ASCP)—the largest association for [medical] laboratory professionals—has stressed the importance of promoting MLS/MLT programs to produce certified, well-trained lab professionals, to fill major staffing shortages. However, filling the positions is only one piece of the puzzle.”
Bator points out that there wasn’t space nor time for guidance or advancement with the sheer volume of SARS-CoV-2 testing they had to complete.
“Late last year, during the worst of the Omicron variant surge, the only people I could commiserate with were the nurses who thanked us for running their pediatric ICU tests first,” she said. “They understood what we meant when we said we were drowning and stopped calling the lab to pester us for results because they knew that the positivity rate in Cuyahoga County was the third highest in the country and that the entire system was overwhelmed.”
Suzanna Bator is just one early-career worker among many healthcare professionals who have experienced this type of burnout due to the COVID-19 pandemic. As made evident by her piece, the pathology and clinical laboratory professions are losing workers who otherwise might have entered training programs to further their careers in those fields.
The issue of worker burnout is not just a temporary stressor on the clinical laboratory industry. Both worker burnout and staffing shortages in labs preceded the pandemic and will have continuing long-term effects unless steps are taken to reverse it.