4 strategies for managing physician burnout
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By Ethan Popowitz
Being a healthcare worker is stressful.
The hours are long. Schedules may feel unpredictable. And the risk of infection and the weight of making difficult decisions (among many, many other reasons), can take a significant physical and mental toll. No wonder even the most dedicated healthcare professionals burn out.
And that’s a problem. Because when a healthcare worker feels overwhelmed by the stresses and pressures of the job, everyone suffers.
Burnout can lead to depression, substance abuse, and thoughts of suicide. It contributes to staffing shortages, which can place even more distress on a physician’s colleagues. And burnout can lead to an increased likelihood of malpractice or medical error, reducing the quality of patient care or even putting patients in harmful situations.
Unfortunately, there is no one simple solution to alleviating burnout. However, knowing how to talk about burnout can help break down the stigmas around it, paving a path to recovery—but it's up to leaders to start these conversations.
Read on to see how healthcare leaders can make changes to their organization that can improve the wellbeing of their employees and mitigate the effects of burnout.
Creating a positive work environment
Studies have shown that social support in the workplace is a key factor in preventing feelings of burnout and improving health and happiness among healthcare professionals.
Wellness programs are among the most common approaches and typically include activities such as yoga, mindfulness, and meditation. And while these services have been shown to play a part in reducing feelings of stress and burnout, healthcare leaders can take their efforts to the next level by also providing adequate breaks and developing more comprehensive mentorship programs.
Providing adequate breaks
Breaks are vital to managing stress and other negative feelings that may crop up during the workday. For healthcare workers, a lack of uninterrupted breaks can lead to feelings of emotional exhaustion and depersonalization.
One study found that nurses who missed or skipped breaks and meals demonstrated poorer physical and mental performance and were more likely to experience job-related injuries or make an error. However, holding regular, guaranteed breaks reduced fatigue and strengthened short-term performance.
While hospital management can encourage nurses and other workers to take breaks, leaders should consider ways to make that feasible and effectively balance everyone’s time. For example, float nurses could be positioned to provide patient coverage while the regular staff is off duty.
A novel idea from the American Medical Association (AMA) is to implement a time-banking system that awards staff with “credits” when that person covers for a colleague or works overtime. These credits can then be exchanged for incentives that help restore work-life balance, such as meal deliveries or dry-cleaning services.
Developing comprehensive mentorship programs
There are undoubtedly significant benefits to mentorship, which is why 84% of Fortune 500 companies use mentorship programs to both support their employees and ensure engagement in the workplace.
Due to the ongoing staffing shortage, however, experienced healthcare professionals are now at a premium. COVID-19 is in part to blame, as the pandemic pushed tens of thousands of healthcare workers into early retirement.
The loss of veteran healthcare providers is also a blow to younger and less experienced physicians entering the field. Experienced healthcare professionals often serve as resources for advice, guidance, and education. Most importantly, mentors can help their mentees develop on-the-job social skills and understand best practices for seeking help when they feel out of their depth. Cultivating this wisdom can be crucial to preventing medical mistakes and may also lead to reduced readmissions and a higher quality of care.
Mentorship has also been shown to strengthen professional relationships, build camaraderie and collaboration, promote professional development, and increase job satisfaction.
Carefully consider your technology
Healthcare technology has long been used to improve care by revolutionizing day-to-day operations at a hospital. Despite this, many physicians across the healthcare landscape still find some technologies to be challenging and time-consuming to use.
Electronic health records (EHRs) are a prime example. According to one study, physicians reported spending nearly 50% of their work day doing desk work and using EHRs while spending only 27% of their total time with patients. Excessive EHR usage, alongside other administrative tasks including scheduling, billing, and facility management, topped Medscape’s 2022 Physician Burnout & Depression report, with 60% of participants stating it to be their primary cause of burnout.
The AMA has done extensive research on the “demoralizing effects” cumbersome EHRs can have on physicians. To that end, AMA has partnered with MedStar Health to create EHRSeeWhatWeMean.org, a resource healthcare providers can use to learn about the risks associated with poor EHR technology. Healthcare IT companies—particularly ones who develop EHR solutions—should consider investigating the site to learn what not to do, and how to optimize their technology for their customers.
For healthcare leaders, you should work with your IT team to ensure the interoperability of your software and systems. Take things one step further by having open conversations with your physicians to get their perspectives on the usability of your tools. Also, consider asking these questions:
- How difficult is it to share information among team members and across platforms?
- How easy is it to train workers on your systems?
- How well is your system integrated into the clinical workflows of your physicians? Do you find they use unintended workarounds?
- Is your data secure? What procedures do you have in place to safeguard against data breaches?
Cultivate strong leaders
The quality of leadership within an organization has a direct impact on physician stress levels, job satisfaction, and burnout. Research from the Mayo Clinic found that a one-point increase in the leadership score of a physician’s immediate supervisor is associated with a 3.3% decrease in the likelihood of burnout and a 9% increase in satisfaction. To reap these benefits, organizations need to hire leaders who will listen to, engage, develop, and lead physicians.
After all, a good leader can shift feelings of burnout from a “me” problem to a “we” problem.
For healthcare leaders looking to fight against physician burnout—or train future leaders—here are seven strategies to consider:
- Learn to recognize the signs of distress, mental health challenges, and burnout in yourself and your colleagues. Some indications that a person may be feeling burnout include: becoming frustrated with small inconveniences, withdrawing from relationships, and calling out of work more frequently. Both the AMA and the Department of Health and Human Services have toolkits and resource centers to help you develop the skills needed to take action.
- Eliminate barriers to mental healthcare. Long has the stigma surrounding mental health thrived. Cut out the noise by creating a culture and work environment that makes resources and training related to burnout easily accessible and frequently communicated. Consider making “wellness teams” who are committed to keeping the health and happiness of providers top of mind.
- Reprogram the “physician personality.” According to AMA researchers, many doctors experience doubt, guilt, and an exaggerated sense of personal responsibility. While these qualities make for a good physician because it leads them to be thorough, committed, and leave no stone unturned, they can be a double-edged sword. A good leader should recognize the potential dangers of being a perfectionist, and communicate that it is okay to feel vulnerable, self-reflect, and ask for help.
- Provide tools for self-care. While several things can be done at the organizational level to reduce physician burnout, you should also encourage individuals to find healthy ways to manage stress and prioritize their wellbeing. Examples of this include peer-support programs and digital therapy through app-based programs.
- Include healthcare workers in policy discussions. Consider giving nurses, physicians, and other providers the opportunity to participate in decision-making, especially when it relates to their work. The results of one study revealed that healthcare workers are more likely to experience burnout when they feel a lack of autonomy and control over their practice.
- Use your voice to advocate for positive changes in your workplace or community. Consider speaking out against the stigma of mental healthcare and the negative effects of burnout online or at events.
- Workplace appreciation can go a long way. Something as simple as having a senior leader visit patient care areas to shake hands, show their appreciation, and say “We couldn’t do it without you,” means a lot. Ensuring that you and fellow leaders are knowledgeable about tough situations and acknowledging staff contributions can leave a big impression.
As a hospital executive, it is essential to understand the impact that physician burnout can have on your facility and patients. Fortunately, there are strategies that you can use to manage and reduce burnout from occurring.
For the latest on burnout and the staffing shortage, listen to episode 24 of the Definitively Speaking podcast, “This might hurt a bit—Diagnosing the nursing shortage with Rachel Schiff of IntelyCare.”
Healthcare commercial intelligence can also help you make strategic decisions on hiring, recruiting and technology to address and reduce the costly impact of burnout. Interested in learning more? Start a free trial today.