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Burnout Syndrome in Secretaries of Healthcare Clinics

Posted By Cecilia Negrini, Monday, July 2, 2018
Updated: Tuesday, May 7, 2019

Cecilia Negrini - Founder and CEO of the company Cecilia Negrini (Brazil)


They take care of patients and health professionals, generate spreadsheets, manage conflicts, and input data into systems. They care about the cleanliness of the work environment and more. But who cares for them?

Burnout Syndrome in physicians and other health professionals is well researched. However their secretaries report feeling as exhausted as the health professionals themselves, yet there is little research to support this.

In 1974 the American researcher and psychoanalyst Dr. Freudenberger, after observing oscillation of humor and disinterest in the work among some of his collaborators of the health area, diagnosed for the first time the Burnout syndrome.

The main symptom of Burnout Syndrome common in people dedicated to work is the total loss of interest at work, placing unrealistic demands on themselves and others, and a mania of perfection. Often, these professionals become frustrated by not being recognized in the workplace or not receiving the attention they deserve. Although Burnout Syndrome can manifest itself in any professional, it is more common in professionals whose role it is to take care of other people or who have very close interpersonal contact, such as doctors, nurses, firemen, police officers, teachers, and psychoanalysts, among others. Therefore, in these circumstances it is also known as Professional Burnout Syndrome.

Burnout Syndrome is a form of emotional exhaustion, a state of depression, apathy, loss of self-esteem, and a lack of interest in work—even if you devote yourself to it. It is as if you did it mechanically, without emotion or commitment, generated by a feeling of frustration for lack of recognition of your competence and dedication to work.

Brazil is approaching the mark of half a million doctors and has the largest number of dentists in the world with more than 240 thousand professionals. Add other health specialties such as physiotherapists, psychologists, and nutritionists, among others, and it can be seen that the number of health professionals in Brazil is approximately one million. Considering that these professionals need secretaries to provide the necessary support to such health professionals, we can deduce their expressiveness in the population and the impact they have directly and indirectly on society.

In Brazil, the average salary of a health secretary ranges from around USD$5000 to USD$6000 a year, working 8 hours a day. A large number come home to domestic chores such as taking care of the children, washing and ironing, making food, and other housework.

According to Andrey Orloski, 30% of Brazilians suffer from Burnout Syndrome and 93% of these people feel exhausted, 86% feel irritated, 82% are inattentive, and 74% of these people have difficulty relating in the workplace.

Considering the lack of research data and information in this sector, many secretaries have already suffered or suffer from this syndrome and do not know it. 

Constantly giving and caring at home and being in constant contact with customers, suppliers, doctors, and patients at the workplace, the problems related to frustrations, anxieties, charges, and expectations manifest. And often the secretary becomes a confidant, a support and even plays the role of psychologist when someone wants to vent their own frustrations and anger. Patients, providers, customers in general often say things to secretaries that they do not have the heart to tell doctors. The patients perceive that the secretaries are closer to their way of life and as such by relating their woes to them they will understand better than the health professional they have come to see.

We cannot forget that the secretary also has her own personal and family problems, goals, dreams, and frustrations and that the performance of the hospital, clinic, or office, as well as the work team, directly or indirectly affect their goals and mood. Their function is to help solve the problems of all who are there. However, we have to remember that it doesn’t matter how professional and prepared the secretary is, they still need care and attention as does any human being. They are always there, at the front of reception, willing to solve various conflicts and hiding their insecurities, conflicts, and frailties, and because they rarely have someone to speak to and expose their anguish and problems, so suffocate feelings that fester over time.

I know of a very dynamic and competent secretary, who although she is still young, is nicknamed “the mother" of the clinic because she cares for everybody who passes through her reception with all the care, zeal, and concern of a mother. She organises the schedules of four professionals, welcomes all of their patients, receives financial payments, enters data in the systems, cleans the clinic's working environment, makes payment of clinic expenses, controls bank statements, and manages different conflicts that appear in daily life. In addition to all the workload, she is married with two small children and prepares the family's food, helps the children at school, does the housework, and supports her husband at his work. When I visited the clinic recently she was very depressed, discouraged, and had symptoms of influenza. Talking to her a little, she reported that she had been working overtime for three days and that she felt unsupported and under-appreciated.

This scenario is constantly repeated and is almost always unnoticed even by the secretaries themselves. In addition to the psychological effects such as internal emptiness, depression, and feelings of incompleteness, there are also physical symptoms such as nausea, dizziness, tremors, change in appetite, sleep disturbances, headaches, shortness of breath, palpitations, mood swings, difficulty in concentration, and digestive problems, among others. Such symptoms are termed psychosomatic diseases.

To avoid Burnout syndrome, here are some tips for the secretaries of health professionals:

1. Plan and organize your activities.
Reorganization of activities will have the effect of decreasing significantly the feeling of unfinished tasks and incompetence; 

Establish WhatsApp conference times, emails, and social media.
This practice reduces anxiety and does not compromise the smooth running of daily activity planning;

3. Prioritize what is really important
Because of ‘who they are’, secretaries will often take on more activities and take them really seriously which later will result in work overload and a sense of inefficiency. Saying "At this moment I cannot, but by 12:00 I can" can bring many benefits without having to say no to requests;

4. Do regular physical activity.
Secretaries usually sit for long periods and do not do much physical activity. We know that physical activity releases important hormones for well-being;

5. Good night of sleep. Sleeping well is a key when you have great intellectual and emotional wear and tear. Eight hours of sleep are recommended for good physical and emotional health;

6. Healthy Eating. Many secretaries, because they don’t bring lunch to work end up eating nothing, fast food or snacks during the day and at night when they get home they eat a lot because they are without proper food throughout the day;

7. Drink water. 
Being constantly busy secretaries often forget to drink water during the day. We know the importance of drinking at least 2 liters of water for the proper metabolic functioning and consequently physical well-being;

8. Maintain social life.
The outcome of going out with friends, family and colleagues is a change in our emotions and our thoughts, issues and problems. We manage for a few hours to distract from the routine;

9. Good communication.
The verbal expression of feelings and opinions will assist the secretary not to reserve so many problems for herself. Whenever something seems wrong or needs adjustment, schedule a meeting with your superiors and communicate assertively and gently. You will certainly be recognized as a secretary who collaborates to develop best practices and receive more respect;

10. Have dreams. 
The reality of a hospital, clinic can be very harsh, so it is important to clearly see a future where something very good can be achieved. Set goals and plans to achieve that dream. When we have a beautiful horizon on the way even the arduous becomes easier.

11. Take an Interest in the subject. 
Extend your awareness and talk to doctors, psychologists or research more, as many people mistake it for depression. Be alert to the causes, symptoms and treatments.

Secretaries are very important, not only for the professionals, but fundamental for everyone in a hospital, clinic, medical center or office. As such they deserve all our care and attention. Whenever you interact with one, be kind, smile and find the human being behind all the many tasks and responsibilities.


Cecilia NegriniCecilia Negriniis business Consultant, businesswoman, coach and speaker. She is founder and owner of the company Cecilia Negrini – Consulting and Advice for the Health Area. She had more than 10 years of experience in assisting health professionals. A personal coach by SLAC – Sociedade Latino Americana de Coaching and she is affiliated in Institute of Coaching by Harvard and affiliated in National Wellness Institute – USA. She is specialist in Linguistics from UNESP – UniversidadeEstadualPaulista and she did MBA in Marketing for Health and MBA in Business Management from FGV – FundaçãoGetúlio Vargas. She works like facilitor in training about servant leadearshi by FórmulaTreinamentos and James Hunter – author of the book The Servant and others.

E-mail: cecilia@cecilianegrini.com


Tags:  Brazil  burnout  Cecilia Negrini  health professionals  healthcare  International Wellness  secretaries 

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