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Leadership is essential to disrupting the cycle of burnout

"Far too many healthcare leaders still labor under the erroneous belief that burnout is a failure of the individual, without considering the system in which these individuals work."
---Battling Healthcare Burnout, Thom Mayer, MD

Addressing healthcare burnout requires transitioning to systems thinking, which ironically starts when leaders are willing to do the courageous inner work required to lead themselves and our teams.

Our healthcare employees are suffering from the after-effects of COVID, the “great resignation,” stripped-down staffing levels, and the misrepresentation of human clinicians as factory floor machines.

When frontline employees and senior managers are depleted, C-Suite executive leaders become depleted too. And depleted leaders are at heightened risk of burnout.

When struggling with burnout, executive leaders (like all humans) tend to get caught up in reactivity patterns: they under-communicate, are unable to integrate others’ feedback, lose perspective on their core values, and start seeing employees as problems to be solved rather than partners who can be empowered to find creative solutions.

These patterns profoundly affect employee workplace satisfaction, engagement, and retention.

Burnt-out leaders alienate employees from decision-making processes and cannot address employee challenges at the systemic level.

As a result, communication pathways break down, and solvable problems become friction points. As the quality and transparency of employee-to-leadership communication deteriorate, more employees quit or disengage and the quality and safety of patient care go down.

Five courageous questions to ask to disrupt the burnout cycle.

Take a moment right now to ask yourself:

1. How am I doing, and what do I need right now?

A recent survey indicates that 30% of healthcare leaders are experiencing severe burnout symptoms right now. How do you know if you are struggling with burnout? Take a moment to ask yourself,

Am I struggling to find meaning in my work?
Does the bare minimum feel overwhelming?
Do I feel angry and isolated?
What do I need to restore myself right now?

You may struggle with burnout if you answered yes to these questions.

Most leaders will burn out at some point. Ignoring burnout will not make it go away. Just like reading a painful financial report, taking the time to acknowledge the reality of burnout gives you the information you need to make a change in how you approach your work and care for yourself.

2. Am I overworking? And if so, how can I set boundaries, delegate tasks, and prioritize my self-care?

It is tempting for executives to put their heads down and work harder. But working harder is a failing strategy. Self-care is not the cure for the systemic challenges of burnout.

Self-care allows you to interrupt your tendency to overwork and create space to build self-awareness, enabling you to see challenges and solutions more clearly. It’s ok to start small.

Take a lunch break, say “No” to an extra commitment, or delegate a task that sucks your life out. Small actions pave the way for significant changes in your well-being.

3. How can I listen and communicate my values more effectively?

Listening may not sound vital to solving the healthcare crisis, but a failure to listen lies at the heart of much of the discontent within healthcare systems.

Executive leaders overcome this barrier by learning to speak the same language as their team, senior managers, frontline clinicians, and other essential services employees. Learning these new languages requires listening. And listening opens up avenues for connection through shared meaning and core values.

Effective communication also requires transparency.

Leaders must honestly acknowledge the painful reality of their limitations and their system’s challenges. And then be willing to respond with immediate action.

Even when your actions and words are imperfect, your employees will benefit from connecting with you. Employees are resilient despite leaders’ imperfections but must be listened to and honored with the truth.

4. How can I empower my employees to find creative solutions?

Employees are an underutilized resource for executives struggling to retain an engaged workforce.

Employees hold vital insights that will help you to find creative and sustainable solutions to boost morale, engagement, and retention.

Frontline employees are acutely aware of what is broken in your healthcare institution.

Take a risk. Listen to painful feedback. And empower your employees to partner with you as a problem-solving force for good.

If you're looking for a fantastic tool to guide this process, check out the Listen, Sort, Empower tool developed by Swenson and Shanafelt while at the Mayo Clinic.

5. How can I realign my organization’s policies with my commitment to well-being?

Healthcare executives do not have the power to solve all the drivers of burnout in the healthcare workforce. And yet, contrary to popular opinion, healthcare leaders are not powerless to address this complex challenge.

Leaders are essential to navigating and overcoming institutional burnout in healthcare.

Executives must honestly evaluate how organizational policies are impacting controllable drivers of burnout. This may include unrealistic performance expectations, inequitable workload distribution, or poor communication practices.

But don’t stop there. Take a bold look at your reality, empower your employees, and realign your policies to reflect your commitment to creating a resilient healthcare organization.

Dr. Nicola De Paul is a clinical psychologist and the founder of Mending Health Systems, a leadership and well-being consultant for healthcare systems. This article is adapted from an article originally published on KevinMD:

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