How Healthcare Employers Can Help Reduce Stress and Burnout Among Clinicians
Everyone experiences a difficult day or even week on the job. When an employee develops burnout, however, they can experience chronic stress and exhaustion. They may feel cynical, frustrated, and ineffective at their job. This can reduce productivity, increase turnover, and, in clinical roles, lead to medical errors that can put patients in danger.
Burnout can have many causes, including large amounts of administrative work, heavy patient loads, and long work hours. “There have always been many root causes of burnout among physicians. It's death by a thousand paper cuts. It's a pebble in our shoe that we initially ignore but after months and years leads to burnout," says Alen Voskanian, MD, MBA, Medical Director of Cedars-Sinai Medical Group and Co-Chair of the Cedars-Sinai Medical Network Physician Wellness Committee.
Multiple causes of burnout mean that healthcare HR leaders may need to use multiple approaches to resolve the problem. Here are some of the many potential solutions that can help employers reduce burnout among staff.
1. Promote collaboration and communication over isolation.
Feelings of isolation at work, including a lack of connection and engagement, can feed burnout. The reverse is also true, that burnout can lead to feelings of loneliness and a belief that the employee’s work does not matter.
Employers may help mitigate this isolation by encouraging collaboration between departments, and coordinate group programs such as mentoring. They should also optimize their communication methods with employees, ensuring that each team member understands the company’s policies, goals, and vision. This communication also includes training, so that each employee is fully prepared to carry out his or her role. A culture of recognition can also improve engagement and communication.
Another way to help prevent isolation is to include leadership in burnout reduction efforts. Make sure executives understand the presence and effects of burnout. Train leadership in supportive practices to replace more authoritative approaches.
2. Respond to employee feedback.
Soliciting employee feedback is unlikely to reduce burnout if the employee does not feel that his or her feedback will actually make a difference. Employers must make sure they are taking steps to incorporate that feedback and demonstrate that they are open to employee concerns.
Employers should make an effort to understand the major causes of burnout, and take them seriously. It may also help to find ways to measure burnout as part of that employee feedback. Surveys about staff stress and top workplace concerns can help direct employers’ efforts to reduce burnout.
When responding to team members’ feedback, employers should not dismiss the difference that small changes can make. However, leaders may need to make significant workflow changes to mitigate burnout. Instead of balking, employers should think of it as an investment.
“[Workflow optimization] falls in the hole between the chief medical officer and HR; no one is thinking about it,” says Kate Tulenko, CEO and founder of Corvus Health in Washington, D.C. “Don't be afraid to spend money or do things differently if it reduces turnover.”
3. Consider changes to work hours.
It is probably not surprising that research suggests that clinician burnout is associated with long working hours. Compared with a 40-hour work week, the chance of work‐related burnout doubled with a work week of more than 60 hours. However, analysis shows that burnout related to working hours could be eliminated if clinicians have six or more sleeping hours per night.
HR and clinical leaders may want to reconsider clinician working schedules and shifts. They may also consider setting caps for work hours and allowing for more flexible scheduling. This could significantly reduce stress and improve clinician sleep, which can have both physical and mental benefits.
4. Promote mental health and wellness.
The rise in clinician burnout, and the risks associated with it, has prompted many conversations about how to address mental health in the workplace. Healthcare employers should be open to conversations and changes that encourage mental wellness among clinicians.
- Account for some “down time” in clinicians’ work shifts to help reduce stress.
- Offer mental health resources tailored specifically to your employees’ needs, rather than ones designed for general populations.
- Consider how to increase flexibility when it comes to sick and personal days.
This could have applications beyond a particular organization. Healthcare leaders, including HR, can also support industry-wide changes to encourage better mental health and lower burnout among clinicians, such as broader availability of mental health services.
Clinicians have experienced many changes and disruptions in recent years that have increased burnout. Healthcare employers and HR leaders should understand what can cause burnout in their particular workplaces, and what measures will be most effective for their employees. Taking steps to fight burnout will help improve conditions for staff while protecting patients’ health and safety.