Beyond burnout: Moral suffering among healthcare workers in the first COVID-19 surge

Melina Sherman, Eric Klinenberg

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


The U.S. is facing a national shortage of healthcare workers, as waves of clinicians quit their jobs or leave the profession entirely. Much of the public discourse around this exodus characterizes it as the result of widespread “burnout.” This study draws on in-depth interviews with 22 healthcare workers in New York City to gain deeper understanding of what is leading them to abandon their roles despite the abundant need for their services. It finds that “burnout” in healthcare may be largely explained by moral distress and moral injury inflicted on healthcare workers struggling to care for patients during the COVID-19 pandemic. After presenting a review of the recent literature on moral injury and moral distress, this study lays out five kinds of experiences that emerged during the interviews as the most salient contributors to moral distress, on the one hand, and moral injury, on the other, among healthcare workers. Taken together, these experiences are referred to as “moral suffering.” The key finding from this research is that moral suffering, even when undiagnosed and unnamed, affects HCWs’ ability to provide care and influences their decisions to leave the healthcare profession. Ultimately, this article suggests a need to rethink the ways in which moral distress and moral injury are applied in social scientific research and concludes by indicating how future research can promote the transformation of networks of injury in healthcare into networks of care.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number116471
JournalSocial Science and Medicine
StatePublished - Jan 2024

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Health(social science)
  • History and Philosophy of Science


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