It’s no secret that physicians experience burnout at epidemic levels. Survey results from the 2017 Medscape Lifestyle Report showed that nearly 60% of doctors felt emotionally exhausted and struggled to maintain a healthy work-life balance. Some even said they had considered leaving the profession due to medical burnout. But they’re not the only ones.
While the conversation surrounding medical staff burnout has been quieter, it’s still a significant problem. Nearly 50% of nurse care managers and 36% of front office staff reported feeling burned out, according to a 2017 study from the Journal of General Internal Medicine.
What is staff burnout in healthcare?
Burnout is a syndrome characterized by mental, physical and emotional exhaustion caused by excessive and prolonged stress. Although burnout can occur across all professions, the rate is exceptionally high in healthcare.
“Medical staff burnout is very real,” says Joe Mull, author of Cure for the Common Leader: What Physicians & Managers Must Do to Engage & Inspire Healthcare Teams. “We see the effect take hold of employees in a variety of ways, from high anxiety and exhaustion, to cynicism, boredom and feelings of ‘just going through the motions.’”
The effects of medical staff burnout aren’t limited just to employees. Burnout impacts an entire organization, since overworked, exhausted employees often lack the motivation and commitment to perform well, collaborate with co-workers and deliver safe, meaningful patient care.
How to identify burnout in medical professionals
Does one of your employees seem particularly tired? Does he or she seem distracted or disengaged from their work? Has this person been missing multiple days of work? Each of these scenarios could describe an employee who is feeling the effects of burnout. It’s critical for healthcare organizations to be able to recognize the warning signs of burnout in their staff and ensure they get the help they need to perform their best.
Some warning signs include:
• Increased absenteeism
• Heightened sensitivity
How to prevent medical staff burnout
With those stakes in mind, consider the following six steps for proactively keeping medical staff engaged, productive and committed to their work.
1. Provide support from the top
Mull says staff burnout in healthcare occurs when managers fail to rise to the role of leaders. “A boss cannot stay firmly rooted in the role of supervisor and only focus on managing the daily operations of the practice,” Mull says. He suggests practice managers touch base regularly with their staff to discuss what’s working, what can be improved and what they need to feel supported in their roles. “Communication is key, and that means asking questions, soliciting feedback and actively showing that you support and encourage employees’ long-term development,” Mull adds.
2. Encourage autonomy and avoid micromanagement
A Cornell University study of small businesses showed a direct correlation between employee autonomy and employee engagement. In other words, more autonomy led to faster growth in employees’ capabilities, which in turn led to higher retention rates. That equation also applies to medical staff, who need a certain level of professional autonomy in order to feel like their work is valued and influential. “Command-and-control” environments that do not allow employees to think and act for themselves foster a sense of “learned helplessness” that often leaves staff feeling unheard, unimportant and ultimately burned out. “Rather than just direct staff, physicians and managers should ask for their employees’ opinions and perspectives and encourage them to try out their ideas,” says Mull. “This allows them to feel like they have an influence on the overall impact of the organization, which is a key ingredient to nurturing engagement.”
3. Maximize employee strengths
Keeping medical staff in roles that don’t align with their talents and skills is a sure-fire path to burnout. Whether they are overtaxed with too many responsibilities or bored in a role that isn’t challenging, both scenarios are likely to cause an employee stress and unhappiness at work. Practice managers should consider the unique qualities that each employee brings to the organization and make every effort to ensure they’re given the opportunity to utilize them.
4. Create connections with colleagues
In addition to the occasional happy hour or team-building exercise, employees also need chances to connect during normal work hours. Mull says managers often make the mistake of relying solely on out-of-office activities to build company morale, but it’s the day in, day out experiences that build real camaraderie. “Practices might schedule a potluck lunch where no one talks about work, or create a ‘Where I spent my summer vacation’ board to hang in the office,” he suggests. These kinds of activities allow staff to get to know each other despite their busy schedules and form meaningful, trusting relationships.
5. Get up and move
Another way to help colleagues connect and feel more engaged with work? Encourage them to take short, frequent breaks for fresh air, exercise and space away from the computer. A walk outside, lunchtime workout or a quick cup of coffee are easy and effective ways to feel refreshed, alert and better prepared to handle challenging tasks and stay engaged on the job.
6. Promote work-life balance
More than half of U.S. employees said they would change jobs for a company that offered a more flexible schedule, according to the 2017 Gallup State of the American Workplace. In addition, 53% of those surveyed said maintaining a work-life balance is important. Whether adjusting work hours to manage a long commute, or offering flexibility to staff with young children, employees who are given more control over their schedule and work environment work more productively and efficiently, and are less likely to burn out.
The six strategies above will not only help reduce medical staff burnout but also help keep employees engaged, productive and committed to delivering quality patient care.
Look out for our upcoming podcast with Joe Mull for more insights about employee engagement and creating a positive workplace culture in healthcare organizations.