What Leadership Must Do to Defeat the Stigma of Seeking Help

Posted on October 6, 2022 by Diane W. Shannon, MD, MPH, PCC

Updated August 9, 2023

As a healthcare leader, you are increasingly aware of the high levels of stress your physicians and care teams are under. They're struggling with overwork, fending off burnout and experiencing moral injury as they deal with life and death daily. They’ve been trained to give their all, and they do. But when they need support themselves, they face many obstacles including the  stigma attached to seeking mental health support.

insight_leadershipdefeatstigmaYour physicians  put the needs of their patients first and may feel it’s somehow wrong or unprofessional to have needs themselves, and to seek help to get those needs met. When their need is for support for their emotional or mental health, the stigma can feel particularly daunting.

Everyone involved has a role to play: the physician, peers and colleagues and—especially—leadership. Leaders can make a difference by:

Modeling honesty and showing selfcare. Whether you’re a CMO, department head or other in authority, if you demonstrate it’s all right to talk about mental health and access needed care themselves, then your colleagues will be far more likely to do so.

Treating your physicians with consideration and respect. The research conclusions are clear: this kind of positive leadership behavior—communication, listening, transparency and support—correlates with a lower risk of burnout.

Shadowing your physicians. Donning scrubs and following physicians as they meet their challenges is an unparalleled way for you to experience the pressures, stress and overwhelm they deal with everyday.  This can shed light on how to best provide support.

Providing resources for emotional and mental well-being, including counseling and peer coaching. Make sure to communicate their value, availability and how to access them.

Addressing systemic issues. Be aware of the pressures for productivity, faulty patient flow processes, insufficient support staff, the burden of EHR documentation —they contribute to physician stress and burnout. If these systemic issues are ignored, even the best-designed well-being program will struggle to thrive.

For more on what individuals, colleagues and leaders can do to help destigmatize seeking help, read Physicians and Their Experience with the Stigma for Seeking Help, here.

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