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February 6, 2023

How Healthcare Leaders Can Combat Burnout From Work

How Healthcare Leaders Can Combat Burnout From Work

by Michael Burcham

There are several forces at play in society that significantly impact healthcare: climate change, social inequality, inflation, and more. Burnout from work is another problem. To meet these challenges, we need healthcare leaders who nurture creativity, collaboration, and shared values.

But what are the qualities of effective leaders?

Early in my career, a manager told me that if no one was behind me, I probably wasn’t a leader. Practically, there’s no denying that fact! But there is a deeper meaning there too.

Most people — and in particular those who choose to work in health care — are motivated by more than a paycheck. They have a purpose. Good healthcare leaders magnify that light, that intrinsic motivation. Bad ones snuff it out. No one wants to be around someone who doesn’t care enough to make you a better person.

Healthcare Leaders Must Be Authentic

For generations, employees wanted strong and confident corporate leaders. Now they want vulnerable ones. A national survey published in May 2022 found 87 percent of prospective employees want an authentic company culture and 84 percent want to work for an authentic manager. When you feel like you’re in the trenches with someone, you’re less likely to suffer from burnout at work.

How can healthcare leaders model and facilitate authenticity?

They should look past artificial challenges like obstacle courses or paintball. These activities are fun, but they don’t engender vulnerability. (Even if your greatest fear is being blasted with a purple paint pellet.) Authentic exchanges also are less likely to happen online. Digital platforms have allowed us to get more done, but we need to be in person to truly connect.

At Shore Capital, we ask teammates to gather in person and share several photos that demonstrate who they are as a person today and how they came to be who they are. A few of mine I always share…

I share a photo of my childhood home.

I grew up in my formative years with my grandmother. I remember our getting an indoor restroom as a “big event.” We were on Medicaid. I knew the only way “off the rural Mississippi farm” was a grinding work ethic. Seeing this photo explains to my teammates why I’m so driven – and the crazy hours I work. It helps them give me grace when I email too early in the morning or late at night.

I share another photo of my son.

It’s the last photo I have of him before his death at the young age of 25. I tell the story of my regrets. Of wishing I’d taken more time with him when he was young. Of missing a ball game for a work event that I can’t even recall. This photo helps my team understand that my own deep personal loss and pain are also defining elements of who I am today.

Such an exercise doesn’t mean we’re always going to agree, or that we won’t annoy one another. But it is awfully hard to dislike someone — to not want to work with someone — who has been willing to let you inside a bit of their life, especially their childhood.

Closely tied to authenticity is consistency. People smell phony really fast. When leaders are authentic, they are more likely to be consistent, leaving employees with a stronger foundation because they know what to expect. This consistency cycle breeds trust.

Authenticity also could be an antidote to burnout from work.

When healthcare leaders are more authentic, their employees are more likely to be authentic themselves and to feel a sense of belonging, a state that benefits workers  psychologically — and financially. In fact, the survey I mentioned above found a direct link between authentic culture and employees’ own economic well-being. Thirty-five percent of employees said being authentic at work directly led to a pay raise or promotion while 45 percent said it led to greater job stability.

Leaders are Active Listeners

Sharing your own story is the first step. Listening is the second step.

Often when I offer a young person a job, I invite their family to lunch or dinner. Sometimes it makes my new hire anxious, but I find that fear doesn’t last long once we settle into a meal. And these encounters help me immensely. It’s easier to get know a person’s purpose, and their strengths, by hearing from the people who love and admire them most. My active listening at a lunch or dinner begins to create a bond with a new team member that might otherwise take months (or even years) to achieve.

Right now, most business leaders are failing to listen to their own employees, much less the people around them who could provide relevant input. According to a 2021 survey by The Workforce Institute at UKG and Workplace Intelligence:

  • 86 percent of employees feel people at their organization are not heard fairly or equally;
  • 63 percent of employees feel their voice has been ignored in some way by their manager or employer;
  • 34 percent of employees would rather quit or switch teams than voice their true concerns with management.

Burnout from work can stem from not being heard.

If you’re not an active listener, you’re not a leader. Just like a doctor cannot figure out what is wrong with a patient in 14 seconds, you cannot find out what is wrong with a teammate in 10 minutes. Even if you think you have a genius solution for the ailment your teammate is expressing, fight the urge to interrupt. Instead say, “Tell me more about that.” Not rushing a conversation will help you get past surface complaints (or symptoms) and into what really is driving dissatisfaction (the root cause).

Another one of the qualities of effective leaders is to fight the separation between you and the 100 or 10,000 people who work for or with you.

Too many CEOs tell me they don’t have time to connect with the people whom they’ve trusted to execute their vision. That mindset is shortsighted. Good leaders prevent crises by looking for opportunities to listen. So, walk around. Talk to people. If you haven’t already engaged in the photo sharing exercise I mentioned above, ask about the mementoes or photos your employees display in their workspace. Ask them what drives them to come to work each day (their own “why”) and inquire about what barriers they face to doing their job.

Then, pull up a chair and listen.

Healthcare Leaders Must Tie Tasks to Purpose

The English writer E.M. Forster said, “One person with passion is better than 40 people merely interested.”

Today, too many people are barely interested in their work, much less passionate.

It’s no wonder. Work — nay, life — during the pandemic was mere survival. For almost three years, we’ve asked employees to put their heads down and get the job done. When that happens, it becomes too easy to ask, “Why am I even here?”

Burnout from work occurs when our tasks are not connected to our purpose, and that’s what people are experiencing today.

A Gartner survey of 3,500 employees found the COVID-19 pandemic made 65 percent of people rethink the place work has in their lives. If employees are at your organization merely to earn pay for a task, you’re at risk of losing them.

To understand how leaders could better connect tasks with purpose, Andrew Carton, an associate professor of management at University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, investigated how NASA leaders inspired employees during the 1960s when the United States had fallen behind the Soviet Union in the race to the moon.

Keep in mind that NASA at the time was a 400,000 person organization. There probably was not a more unwieldly organization in the entire solar system. But, as Carton said in an interview, “Even people who were quite far removed from the famous goal of landing a man on the moon reported feeling an incredible connection to this ultimate goal … Rather than talking about, ‘I’m fixing electrical wiring’ or ‘I’m stitching space suits’ or ‘I’m mopping the floors,’ they would actually identify their work as, ‘I’m putting a man on the moon.’”

If you want to reduce burnout from work, the IT department, call center specialists, and billers all must be able to articulate how their daily tasks help achieve the company’s mission. To accomplish this feat, Carton found leaders must:

  • Depict a compelling picture, normally a single notion, of where the organization is headed. For NASA in the 1960s, it was to the moon. For Shore Capital, it’s a world where passionate entrepreneurs have the support they need.
  • Provide each employee with an articulated objective, and communicate how each employee contributes to the mission. Carton noted this process is a time consuming, but essential one, for a CEO.
  • Set clear milestones so your team can see how their daily tasks bring the organization closer to its goal

To paraphrase Carton, good leaders not only help each team member see what a completed puzzle will look like, they help them understand what the puzzle would look like without their contribution.

This method works. According to McKinsey, employees who exhibited purpose in their work had a greater level of well-being and were four times more likely to be highly engaged in their work. 

Why the Qualities of Effective Leaders Are Important

I have led three organizations. I can tell when a new hire is whip smart, but has suffered under bad leadership. They are careful, closed off, and less curious. Their natural joy for meaningful work has been snuffed out, and they have one foot out the door even before they’ve finished the onboarding paperwork.

It is usually that a previous bad leader has totally destroyed their intrinsic motivation. In such cases, I see my job is to provide an authentic environment where that individual can learn to trust again. When I do that, their own desire to achieve and to contribute is ignited.

Authentic leaders who listen and connect that employee’s daily work to the company’s mission can rekindle intrinsic motivation. And to effectively tackle the external forces facing healthcare, they must.    

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