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Purpose and Meaning Essential to Creating Joy in Healthcare Workplaces

Analysis  |  By Christopher Cheney  
   March 23, 2022

Promoting joy is a powerful approach to addressing healthcare worker burnout.

Fostering meaning and purpose in staff members is the key to promoting joy in healthcare workplaces, a healthcare well-being expert says.

Healthcare worker burnout was a top concern for health systems, hospitals, and physician practices before the coronavirus pandemic, and it has reached crisis proportions during the public health emergency. Burnout continues to play a leading role in the widespread healthcare workforce shortages.

Elizabeth Goelz, MD, is an internal medicine physician and associate director of the Hennepin Healthcare Institute for Professional Worklife in Minneapolis.

HealthLeaders recently interviewed Goelz to discuss the intricacies of promoting joy in healthcare workplaces. The following transcript of that conversation has been edited for brevity and clarity.

HealthLeaders: What are the primary elements of joy in healthcare workplaces?

Elizabeth Goelz: Joy can have different meanings for different people. Creating joy directly is not a goal that I would try to pursue. It is really about cultivating a workplace where meaning and purpose thrive—that creates the space for joy to exist.

HL: What are the primary elements of meaning and purpose?

Goelz: When you think about what brings you meaning in your work or what brings you purpose in your work, is it providing quality care, is it connecting with people, is it easing the burden of suffering for others? Those are the kind of large, overarching things that are often meaningful and purposeful to healthcare personnel. Then the question is, what does that look like? Does that look like having adequate time to see patients? Does that look like having access to the right resources when taking care of patients? Does that mean having adequate support staff? Does that mean having an electronic medical record that is not obstructing the work that needs to be done?

What meaning and purpose are and what they look like to cultivate meaning and purpose are separate but related questions. It’s more about finding examples than having a dictionary definition.

HL: How can healthcare organizations make healthcare workers feel valued?

Goelz: For some people, it simply takes acknowledging their hard work. For other people, it is making time for things such as eating healthy food, or showing you value their work-life balance by not contacting them after hours, or respecting their time by not having unnecessary meetings or unnecessary emails.

There are a lot of different things that can make people feel valued. But it all comes back to creating space for meaning and purpose to thrive, and saying "thank you."

HL: Conversations about what matters most to staff can help determine projects with the best potential for creating space where joy can exist. What kind of process can promote these conversations, then translate the conversations into actions and programs?

Goelz: You need to commit to asking what matters to staff members. That is the most important step. Then you need to log the answers and reflect on the information received. It is a commitment to a culture of curiosity and change. It can take the form of asking what matters during daily or weekly team huddles, and a monthly time to reflect on the information collected, plan ideas for modifications, and reconvene to assess the progress from previous months. It can take the form of a survey. Most certainly, it includes having a point person to lead this type of work. If nobody is in charge of something like this, it simply won't get continued. Having a point person for this work says something about an organization’s commitment to a healthy workplace.

The Institute for Healthcare Improvement has a spectacular white paper on "what matters to you?" conversations. The white paper gets at the practical tools and the importance of having these conversations.

HL: Who are good candidates to be a point person in conversations about what matters most to staff?

Goelz: A chief wellness officer is the best person to do this work. A chief wellness officer can keep tabs on the work, report back to the C-Suite, and be the person who is coordinating the work. If an organization does not have a chief wellness officer, there are other people who can serve as a point person. In any organization, there are undoubtedly people who are interested in what matters to staff. Simply listening can identify who those people are. Having a point person can involve carving out a small amount of FTE for somebody to be the go-to person not only for the healthcare team but also the go-to person for the C-Suite.

In addition, there are many organizations that have wellness champions—someone from each department who stays on top of wellness work who can report back to the point person.

HL: How can healthcare organizations identify what brings meaning and purpose to healthcare professionals?

Goelz: You simply need to ask. The "what matters to you?" conversation illustrated in the IHI white paper can be a great way to go about it. Ask, log the answers, and commit to a culture of asking, recording, reflecting, changing, and repeating. Without asking, there is no other way to identify what brings meaning and purpose. We can assume that meaning and purpose is related to providing quality care. We can assume, but you must ask.

For people who are stressed or are already burning out, it is easy for them to assume that if they are not asked about meaning and purpose, then the organization does not care about it. There are a lot of things that an organization asks about, and if meaning and purpose are not being asked about, that sends a message.

HL: How can healthcare organizations create the space for joy during disruptions such as leadership changes and staffing shortages?

Goelz: First, leadership changes should always include consideration of commitment to joy and wellness prior to hiring a leader because the right leadership team is essential for prioritizing this kind of culture.

Beyond that, joy is about meaning and purpose. So, learning what creates meaning and purpose for your healthcare workers can show organizations what to prioritize during inevitable disruptions. For example, if having the appropriate amount of time to see patients is something that allows meaning and purpose to thrive, then it should be prioritized.

If having the right support staff is important, which is different for different types of organizations, then it should be prioritized. A safety net organization is going to have different staffing resource needs than a non-safety net organization, particularly when it comes to community health workers and social workers. So, prioritizing staffing around the needs of the community that the organization serves shows commitment to the meaning and purpose of the healthcare workers.


Christopher Cheney is the CMO editor at HealthLeaders.


Meaning and purpose can take several forms for healthcare workers such as providing quality care and easing the burdens of suffering.

Conversations about what matters most to staff can help determine projects with the best potential for creating space where joy can exist.

Leadership changes should always include consideration of commitment to joy and wellness prior to hiring a leader.

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