Is compassionate leadership an antidote for health care burnout?

August 24, 2018

Can health care be a toxin for those providing care to others?  The drive for cost savings, the increasing complexity of care, the menace of electronic medical records and the emotional challenges of responding to patient suffering put health care professionals at high risk for burnout.  Today, burnout is common among all members of our health care teams including physicians, nurses and trainees .  Burnout results in emotional exhaustion where one’s ability to give emotionally or cognitively to patients and colleagues is compromised.  Depersonalization and alienation leads to a dehumanizing perception that patients are somehow deserving of their condition. The resulting lack of personal accomplishment and satisfaction culminates in reduced work performance . The downward spiral of burnout results in a disengaged health care provider, unable to provide compassionate care to patients or themselves along with negatively impacting patient safety and quality of care .

Developing strategies to reduce burnout starts with a better understanding of the challenges and rewards experienced when providing health care.   Providing compassionate care, often in response to the suffering of patients, requires both a cognitive and emotional connection with the patient.  As clinicians we recognize the suffering of our patients.  We make sense of the suffering first cognitively and then emotionally with feelings of empathy or concern towards our patient.  This can then lead to a compassionate action to alleviate the suffering in some way that is meaningful for both the patient and health care provider.

Is compassionate leadership a possible antidote for health care burnout?  Within an organization, the positive antithesis of burnout is engagement.  When a health care provider is engaged in their work, they are more likely to be fully present, joyful and fulfilled. In addition when engaged, they are more likely to be compassionate in their interactions with patients and colleagues.  Until recently, addressing heath care provider burnout was seen as an individual responsibility despite the realization that there are multiple system issues contributing to provider burnout.  Growing evidence underlines the importance of compassionate leadership within all health care organizations, embracing their responsibility in engaging both physicians and other health care providers.  Leadership is critical in creating a compassionate workplace through the inclusion of joy as a key component, establishing a foundation of psychological safety, generating a sense of community, valuing all for their contributions, developing meaningful relationships among team members and showing authentic interest in the wellness of each individual within the organization.   Thus compassionate leadership through engagement and the development of a compassionate culture is an antidote for health care burnout by increasing resiliency throughout the organization, reducing the likelihood of burnout from occurring, along with supporting recovery from burnout and return to wellness.

What are the first steps for a compassionate leader interested in engaging others and supporting the development of resiliency within their organization?  Attend to your staff or colleagues by asking what matters most to them in their work; take time to truly understand the joys and challenges of their work; develop a collective understanding of the work; empathize and connect on an emotional level with others thereby increasing engagement and motivating you to explore solutions to their challenges; assist with finding resources for innovations and remove obstacles for new ways of working.

This article originally appeared on the AMS Blog in 2018 and is written by AMS Fellow Dr. James Goertzen.