Burnout isn’t just a problem for physicians.
Having extensive anecdotal evidence that healthcare executives were struggling with burnout before, during, and after the COVID-19 pandemic, health-care-focused executive search firm WittKieffer conducted studies of the issue in 2018-19 and again in 2022.
The earlier study found that about 60 percent of top-level executives reported some degree of burnout. By 2022 that figure had grown to 74 percent, with a third reporting they “often” or “always” think about leaving their jobs.
For an inside view on this path breaking research, LinkedIn News editor Beth Kutscher spoke with WittKieffer senior partner Rachel Polhemus in May, 2023. Here’s an excerpt.
LinkedIn News: What prompted this report?
Polhemus: We [first looked at this issue] in 2018, at a time when burnout at the executive level wasn't really a discussion point, but it was something we were hearing and noticing a little bit in the marketplace. Coming out of COVID, we thought it would be really helpful for the industry to refresh this burnout study and get a sense for where executives are today.
LinkedIn News: What’s driving the burnout that executives are facing?
Polhemus: It's a variety of different issues, quite frankly. COVID obviously escalated it, but it wasn't just COVID itself, it was much more the aftereffects. COVID would hit, and you would see a spike in cases; it would impact the frontline. Then there was a process of figuring out: What does our workforce look like, where are we getting travelers? And this wasn't just with nursing, it was medical techs, it was environmental service workers, it was food services, it was all the different [functions] that support the patient and patient care. And then there were the cost pressures around reimbursement, and the cost pressures around finding travelers; it all started to escalate the burnout.
Not Powerless, but Suffering
LinkedIn News: There are a lot of clinicians, when I write about burnout, who will blame administrators for not improving working conditions. But what you’re saying is that administrators also felt equally powerless to make things better.
Polhemus: I wouldn't say powerless. I think it's that the industry itself is suffering; a lot of the topline executives were trying to look at what levers they could pull to ensure that the health system or hospital could be financially viable, and at the same time provide what the workforce needed. I think they just felt helpless, like they didn't have the ability [to change things] because this is an industry issue, not specific to one hospital or health system. It was much broader than that.
LinkedIn News: What do you see as the implications of these findings?
Polhemus: As an industry, we need to do better. How do we find ways to support executives? How do we help them understand what their career choices are? They need to know to put on their own oxygen mask first in order to support others. They [need to] take care of themselves and create their own strategies in order to be able to help support other executives and the executives below them and below them again.
To learn more on executive burnout from an authority even closer to the issue, read this essay by Steven Swanson, MD, a physician with decades of experience as a healthcare executive and peer coach.