Physician burnout is bred in isolation and silence. Practitioners suffering from it typically feel alone with their problems and are often hesitant to communicate their growing feelings of overwhelm, emotional exhaustion, lack of fulfillment and cynicism. But alert leaders can head off burnout by promoting a workplace culture of teamwork emphasizing openness.
1) Foster an atmosphere of understanding.
Medical education and practice are progressively focusing on developing practitioners’ “soft skills,” like empathy and deep listening when dealing with patients. It’s just as important to foster a workplace culture where physicians feel comfortable discussing factors contributing to stress and ultimately, burnout.
2) Communicate and encourage to promote engagement.
A workplace culture of healthy teamwork begins at the top, with supervisors who know how to keep their colleagues engaged and communicating, says Craig Uthe, MD, medical director of physician well being at Sanford Family Medicine in South Dakota. He cites a Mayo Clinic study where practitioners were asked to rate their immediate physician supervisors.1 Where the supervisors were seen to be good at communicating with their staff and encouraging them, “engagement was significantly improved and burnout rates significantly dropped,” he says.2
3) Encourage peer counseling and informal social interaction.
Peer-to-peer relationships are every bit as important as supervisor-supervisee connections and effective leaders create opportunities for physicians to get together to support one another. “Connecting with a peer can be powerful,” says Robert Leschke, MD, an emergency department physician and physician peer coach in Madison, Wisconsin. “You tend to feel more understood with someone who’s gone through your situation and come out on the other side.”3 The connection can work one-on-one or in informal social groups who meet after shifts end.
Teamwork fosters communication, communication breaks isolation. And when physicians are connected with each other and with the organization, stress—a reality in any medical setting—doesn’t have to lead to burnout.
1. Mayo study: “Executive Leadership and Physician Well-Being” http://www.mayoclinicproceedings.org/article/S0025-6196(16)30625-5/fulltext
2. Dr. Uthe (2017, Nov 3). Phone interview.
3. Leschke quote: “How Healthcare Leaders Can Support Physician Well Being,” https://vitalworklife.com/blog/2017/11/30/healthcare-leaders-physician-well-being/