Burnout Among Research Coordinators — Warning Signs and How to Avoid Them

Let’s face it. Every job has its challenges. However, burnout seems to be at an all-time epidemic level. A recent report from Harvard University highlighted physician burnout as a public health crisis. A keyword search for “preventing burnout” yields 15 million results in Google. In the United States, problems associated with burnout are estimated to cost more than $120 billion a year.

Burnout is typically defined as a response to prolonged stress. Key signs are emotional exhaustion, cynicism or detachment, and feeling ineffective. The results can include a feeling of isolation, irritability, and even frequent illness and absenteeism. One study indicates that up to eight percent of annual healthcare costs are associated with and may be attributable to how U.S. companies manage their work forces.

Research coordinators, too, face burnout that may be resulting in high turnover rates, low enrolling studies, disrupting workflows and even delaying the start of clinical trials. Certainly at many institutions, risk factors are in place for research coordinators to experience burnout — increased workloads, few opportunities to learn, lack of feedback and limited autonomy.

There are thousands of articles and blog posts about preventing burnout, often putting the impetus on the individual. Many articles cheerily extol professionals to “find life work balance,” eat a balanced diet, exercise or get some sleep. Preventing burnout is not the sole responsibility of the individual to self-manage. There is a vast database of scientific research on workplace predictors of employee burnout. The reality is that organizational culture is a primary driving cause of burnout.

Here are some steps your organization can implement to reduce the risk of burnout and increase motivation and engagement among research staff.

  • Offer ongoing professional training. The field of clinical research is constantly shifting, with the regulatory landscape increasingly complex. Professional training increases competence, which improves performance.
  • Look for opportunities to provide autonomy. With training, research coordinators can have the appropriate knowledge and confidence to manage some workplace decisions. This is especially the case in places with high workload and emotionally demanding clients, such as patients. And while research coordinators are often extremely independent in their work style, researchers must remain diligent in keeping lines of communication open and regularly meeting with their research team.
  • Provide feedback. Researchers and clinicians are busy, also, dealing with their own job stresses. Despite this, clinical research coordinators and other research staff benefit from receiving constructive feedback, including explicitly expressed appreciation from senior leaders.
  • Be realistic about workload. Every job has its times of increased demands. But if daily workload transforms into a chronic overload, there can be serious implications. Leveraging outsourced solutions can ease some of the pressure when overload situations arise. Partnering with outsourcing service providers that can work as an extension of your institution, can complement the internal staff responsibilities.

Given the negative impact of burnout on individuals’ well-being and workplace performance, it is critical that organizations seek proactive ways to create cultures that support and engage their staff.