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Combating clinician burnout: Achieving systemic improvement and wellness

Burnout symposium leaders cite the need for change and discuss evidence-based approaches to address burnout and enhance well-being.

Before the Healthcare Burnout Symposium in New York last November, ICD Healthcare staff spoke with conference co-chairs Bruce Cummings and Thea Gallagher about the conference and what it meant to systematically address burnout in a way that delivers lasting improvement.

Industry leaders have been raising the alarm about clinician burnout for some time — where are we right now in the movement to improve well-being among healthcare workers?

Cummings: The good news is there is widespread recognition of the problem across the professional community, the healthcare community and the general public. The bad news is that the incidence of clinician burnout continues to increase. Depending on which study one refers, more than 60 percent, and some say 70 percent, of physicians and nurses active in the field today are reporting one or more burnout symptoms. Clinician burnout seems to be getting worse, despite the widespread recognition that it’s a problem.

Gallagher: The data is clear and robust that clinician burnout is very real. People are suffering. But now I think we’re seeing leaders realize it’s not sustainable to keep going as they have been. I want to see more active steps being taken at a system-wide level and not just providing people with minimal help here and there.

How can healthcare leaders best assess burnout among their workforce?

Cummings: It’s important to start with the question, “What is burnout and what is it not?” It’s an occupational consequence. It’s not due to a lack of resilience on the part of individual clinicians. In short, it’s the workplace, not the worker. And so, it’s essential for healthcare organizations to begin with good data. They have to assess the situation. Conduct surveys, confidential one-on-one interviews with front-line staff and make in-person workplace assessments – to get a 360-degree view of the problem and its underlying drivers. From there, one can create a detailed action plan with targeted, evidenced-based interventions.

Gallagher: Each organization needs to run a proper self-assessment to understand what is happening in its institutions. Even though clinician burnout is widespread, the factors that give rise to it do differ from organization to organization. There’s no “one size fits all” response.

What does it mean to systematically address burnout?

Cummings: Most organizations focus on tactics that promote resilience on the part of nurses and doctors. They may provide, for example, free memberships to gyms or health clubs, offer yoga or meditation, or establish so-called “recharge” rooms in the workplace, or perhaps offer literature-in-medicine and support groups. I’m not criticizing these efforts. The problem is that they don’t address the underlying causes of burnout. They’re treating the symptoms.

About one-third of a clinician’s time is spent doing what they like to do: taking care of patients. The other two-thirds of their time is spent in the EHR searching for or entering data, doing administrative and other non-clinical duties. This mismatch is a major source of professional dissatisfaction and a significant contributor to burnout.  So, how can we flip that ratio and create changes in workflow and other conditions that make it possible for people to spend more of their time doing clinical care and working at the top of their license?

Gallagher: By establishing advocates and chief wellness officers, institutions can really keep a finger on the pulse: How are we taking care of the mental health of our employees? And if the mental health of our employees is impacted by the expectations placed on them, what changes need to be made throughout the organization?

Employers will realize that if they care about their employees’ wellness, they will see better outcomes, better outputs and greater longevity from their staff. This will remove the burden of training more people and spending more money on staffing over the long term.

What can leaders do to address burnout in a way that delivers lasting improvement?

Cummings: As a former healthcare executive, I’m sympathetic to the overwhelming challenges of leading a hospital or health system. But this is not a problem that can be delegated. It requires the personal involvement of the entire senior leadership team.

Gallagher: It’s about having crucial dialogues that are two-way conversations. What are the complaints of the employees? Where are people feeling burnout? And how can leadership start to make meaningful changes? For example, I work with many nurses, and their burnout can be directly related to what’s going on with support staff and admin. When the burden is solely placed on one employee to do the work of two or three people, it will increase burnout. So, how can leadership swiftly address that pain point and hire more staff?

What do you hope delegates will take away from this conference?

Cummings: First, I hope they develop relationships with kindred spirits, people doing the good work of remediating clinician burnout. That, in itself, provides tremendous value – coming together as a community and forging meaningful connections.

Second, I hope people will leave with actionable insights. There is such a variety of offerings at this conference that delegates will be able to leave with an expanded understanding of different techniques, strategies, programs and efforts they could emulate at their own organizations.

Gallagher: This is a very young field, and I think it’ll be great to hear from leaders nationwide about what has worked and what hasn’t. So much of this work is about engaging with your leadership and institution. People who have been doing it for a long time will have a lot of wisdom and feedback to share, and I hope it’ll get delegates excited to go back to their institutions and make changes — whether on an individual or a system-wide level.

We all want a better quality of life with higher quality work. Delegates will come away with a greater awareness of the severity of the burnout problem and a greater motivation to be part of the change.

Originally published by ICD Healthcare on Oct. 18, 2023

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