$2.14 Million Grant Backs Effort to Battle Burnout Among Health Care Workers

Nurse holding her head looking down
February 3, 2022

UVA Health has received $2.14 million in federal support to expand its nationally lauded program that is battling burnout among health care providers and helping them cope with the exhaustion caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

The new grant, part of President Biden’s $103 million American Rescue Plan and the Lorna Breen Act, will allow UVA Health to expand the reach of the program to overwhelmed health care workers across the country. Outreach will include partnering with Region Ten’s Community Mental Health and Wellness Coalition to provide training for health workers in Charlottesville as well as Albemarle, Fluvanna, Greene, Louisa and Nelson counties. The program gives care providers, community health workers and health care students effective tools to identify and treat “stress injuries” caused by trauma, loss and the many challenges health care workers face. This, in turn, helps reduce burnout, mental illness and attrition at a time when those issues have taken center stage at hospitals around the world.

“Health care has always been a demanding and stressful profession, and the pandemic has only made those stresses more severe. For many care providers, this has been the most difficult and exhausting time in their professional lives,” Dr. K. Craig Kent, chief executive officer of UVA Health, said. “We have found that this innovative benchmark program, developed here at UVA Health, fosters wellness and resilience and helps our dedicated team members provide the best care possible in extraordinarily difficult times. We believe this program has the potential to be transformative for hospitals around the country.”

The program, called Wisdom & Wellbeing, was developed by Richard Westphal of the UVA School of Nursing and Dr. Peggy Plews-Ogan of UVA’s School of Medicine. They will use the $2.14 million federal grant to expand the program into a far-reaching “Wisdom, Wellbeing and Peer Support Training program,” which not only will address burnout-related issues, but also teach providers how to respond effectively to bias and discrimination. 

The program’s expansion will be built on a collaboration with the Dr. Lorna Breen Heroes’ Foundation, which was founded in the wake of Breen’s suicide in April 2020. “COVID has really stripped away the illusion that team members can keep sucking it up and go back to work,” said Westphal, a psychiatric nurse practitioner. “That has never worked. This is about changing the culture.”

The issue has never been more urgent. Nearly two-thirds of nurses and more than 40% of physicians say they’re burned out. The suicide rate amongst physicians and nurses is now at twice the rate of the general population. The national turnover rate amongst nurses prior to the pandemic was about 17%; today, it’s between 20% and 30%, a fact that has crippled staffing at many U.S. hospitals and, in some places, required the deployment of military medical teams

At UVA Health, Westphal and Plews-Ogan’s Wisdom and Wellbeing program is already seeing tremendous results. More than 900 team members have been trained in the core Wisdom and Wellbeing program, and hundreds of individual and team stress assessments have helped team members who were experiencing thoughts of suicide and significant workplace-related stress. 

“Individual and team interventions have supported risk assessment and connection with services, resulting in lives saved, repaired relationships and team member retention,” Westphal said.

The Surgical Trauma ICU, for example, reduced turnover by 54% after the program’s principles were rolled out in 2017. 

“Fundamentally,” Plews-Ogan has warned, “people are not expendable. They are worthy of the attention required to help them be their best.”

UVA Health’s new initiative aims to provide just that. “Our health care providers are doing heroic work every day, and they deserve all of the support we can give them,” Kent said. “We know these tools developed here at UVA Health are effective, and we are eager to share them with our colleagues across the country.”

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