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Preventing Healthcare Burnout: The Leadership Solution

February 21, 2020

Professional burnout is characterized by emotional exhaustion, depersonalization/cynicism, and reduced personal accomplishment/efficacy. The onset of feelings of fatigue, apathy, futility, and dissatisfaction with work is disruptive and often lead to adverse organizational outcomes. Burnout is widespread among healthcare professionals. This is not surprising, given that in the healthcare space, work can be a stressful and dynamic environment.

The Leadership Solution to Preventing Healthcare BurnoutSome of the cited recommendations for remediation and/prevention of burnout at the individual level include training aimed at coping skills, stress inoculation, time management, mindfulness, and communication/interpersonal skills. However, interventions at the individual level have little effectiveness in the absence of organizational support. There is an old Greek saying: “A fish rots from the head first. It starts at the top.” We know that leaders have a good amount of influence on job satisfaction, but this applies to burnout as well. There is a growing amount of evidence that suggests that leadership can have a significant effect on burnout in the healthcare context. It is crucial for healthcare leaders to be able to recognize the signs of burnout and work to develop strategies to reduce the impact of and/or prevent burnout. 

How Can We Combat Healthcare Burnout?

Through education and training, leaders can learn strategies to create an environment in which healthcare staff can thrive. By focusing on the factors that cause healthcare burnout, leaders can help design and implement organizational programs to address and reduce risk of burnout. Strategies like allowing staff to determine some elements in their work, to become more active in decision-making processes, and to leverage professional development programs can help create a sense of autonomy and purpose.  Leaders can foster formal and informal support systems thorough encouraging regular communication among colleagues, facilitating sponsorship and mentoring programs, and advocating for “triage” debriefing for staff after critical patient transitions (e.g., death). 

Related: 5 Steps To Position Physicians For Success And Prevent Burnout

Individual leadership styles are also an important consideration for prevention of burnout. Transformational leadership is characterized by leaders who are charismatic and inspiring and engage in behaviors such as clarifying and communicating goals and a vision, creating developmental opportunities, and promoting cooperation and a sense of unity. Transformational leaders can influence followers’ emotional drivers to achieve results. Research suggests leaders who exhibit traits inherent in a transformational style are not only less prone to burnout, but also the most effective for leading people and for improving organizational performance. 

Thus, some practical recommendations for organizations that aim to ensure that leadership protects staff well-being and prevents burnout are:

  • Design recruitment, selection, and promotional strategies to identify and develop individuals who possess the transformational leadership traits/behaviors.
  • Implement developmental and educational programs that focus on how to assess and diagnose potential drivers of burnout and strategies to understand and address those problems.  

Burnout impacts the performance of the team and work environments and hinders the overall success for the organization. Recognizing the signs of burnout and considering some of the above recommendations can create a more positive, productive, and engaging environment.  

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Kristin Delgado Kristin Delgado is a Senior Research Consultant at PSI. Her areas of expertise include analyzing data, designing and evaluating selection systems in terms of system utility, validity, fairness, and efficiency, and item response methodology. Kristin is a member of the Society for Industrial Organizational Psychology and maintains an active role in conducting applied research.