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Human Resources: Simple Steps to Address Burnout

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Both process and personal connection play a role.

Many healthcare organizations have an effective strategy for dealing with consistently low performers and chronic problem employees in their workforce. They're fired. But what about the otherwise dedicated healthcare professionals—the clinicians, the administrators, the executives—who might find themselves in a funk? What can healthcare organizations do to recognize burnout and help their staff members regain a sense of mission?

Edward Walker, MD, a psychiatrist and director of the University of Washington Healthcare Leadership Development Alliance in Seattle, says job-related burnout across a spectrum of severity among executives, physicians, administrators, and nurses in the healthcare sector is "higher than people think it is."

"I am amazed at the number of people who are depressed and anxious and meeting formal diagnostic criteria. But for every one of those, there were four or five who either didn't want to talk, or they do a coffee consultation with me, where they would talk about how dissatisfied they were," Walker says. "Physicians will tell me they had this flame burning so brightly as interns. Now here they are 20 years later and they can't even find the pilot light."

Walker says health systems should have a designated person whose job is to watch for signs of burnout and intervene. With physicians, that designated person should be another physician. "I don't think they think the standard assistance from HR applies to them. Also, I don't know what their reaction would be. With some it would be warmly received, and with others it would be hostile," Walker says.

The chief of staff or medical director might not be the best person to intervene, Walker says, because they often rotate in and out of that position every two years or so. "The best thing would be to train a member of the medical staff—and it may be a psychiatrist or a primary care doc—to act as an associate medical director for physician development, who does not just intervene on problems but also has a positive-focused physician development plan."

With executives or administrators or nurses, that designated interventionist could be an esteemed colleague, whose approach would likely be greeted with less suspicion. "If you had a dysfunctional CFO, it would probably be the CEO's job to say, 'I really want you to get some help,'" Walker says. "The doctors' situation is a little different because doctors don't see themselves as formally reporting to a single individual that way."

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