In this week’s post, I break down why physicians should Stress Strengths rather than Strengthen Stress in order to combat physician burnout.
Last week, I was speaking with a medical director at a large practice who was telling me that he couldn’t understand why the physicians in his group were having trouble getting their charts done on time. I asked him what sorts of strategies he’d employed to try and make the situation better, and he told me he had 1) Issued email warnings, 2) told physicians that their pay would be docked if they didn’t do better, and 3) posted comparison charts of members of the group. He could not fathom why performance wasn’t improving.
I also recently sat in on a meeting with a client of mine (an internist) and her non-physician supervisor. To my disappointment, the entire meeting was focused on patient wait times, an area where the supervisor determined she was not meeting targets. Not one word was spoken about the internist’s improved Press Ganey scores, the gains she’d made in consistently starting her day on time, and the positive comments staff had made about her performance. At the end of the meeting, my client broke down in tears.
“How can anyone expect me to succeed when all they do is point out my shortcomings?”
Physicians are hyper-focused on their own flaws; we don’t need a supervisor to point them out for us. Negative reinforcement is an old and outdated leadership approach. A person’s path to growth and improvement lies in mobilizing their areas of strength. Meeting with “the big bully” and seeing the “wall of shame” erode self-esteem and don’t lead to improvement. If you’ve been on the receiving end, you have no difficulty understanding how damaging these strategies can be. Here’s what the research shows:
Gallup conducted a study when they analyzed over one million work teams. They found that only 9% of employees who are forced to work in an area of weakness are engaged, while 74% of their counterparts who are allowed to work in an area that uses their strengths are engaged. This isn’t a minor difference either; the gap is staggering.
Modern conversation is dominated by discussion of mindfulness. The implication is that “being in the present moment” will magically help us but, unfortunately, we are constantly distracted by email, Facebook, and the most recent text message, or, just as easily, by our own thoughts. Let’s look at 5 benefits of being in the now:
Mindfulness brings Calm
Often our minds spin wildly, jumping from thought to thought. The swirl of thoughts can be like the torrent of a waterfall. We try to focus on a task and our mind goes to an argument we had that morning, a recent text, or how guilty we feel for eating those 3 scoops of ice cream last night. When we aren’t ruminating about the past, we fixate on a concern about the future, and anxieties and worries take hold. Even if there are no current stressors, our thoughts can take us into a downward spiral driving fear, rumination, and distress.
Mindfulness helps us realize that thoughts are simply thoughts, not reality.
Instead of being swept away by the waterfall, we learn to watch it from the comfort of the water bank. Creating some distance from our thoughts frees us from being trapped by them and allows us to access a natural calm and ease.
Despite being physically present with loved ones, it’s easy for our minds to be elsewhere. Often we stew about a meeting we have to plan for or replay a tense conversation with our boss, missing what’s in front of us. Mentally living in another moment, we can see our partner or children as the annoying distraction. We find ourselves impatient and short-tempered.
When we’re in the present moment, we detach from past experience and future worries, and give our full attention to those we’re interacting with. Drifting from the now is inevitable, but we can note this and gently return to the present. We all know how good it feels to interact with someone fully invested in us in that moment, and others immediately sense when we’re fully there with them. Staying in the present, we often find that it’s easier for others to join us there.
The Present Allows Broader Perspective
When we’re in mindless mode, we develop tunnel vision. We become stuck in a fixed reality that we have assumed to be true. Watching the world through this clouded lens, we have difficulty simply seeing and appreciating what is. Often times the way we see a problem can in fact be our problem, and part of being mindful is being open to challenging our own assumptions. One of the cornerstones of mindfulness is a quality of open awareness and curiosity. When we become inquisitive about a problem and question our assumptions, we see options that were previously outside of our field of view.
In addition, by shifting our focus to the present moment the magnitude of our problems begin to shrink. Right here, right now, it’s likely that our needs are being met, our health is manageable, and we can meet the challenges we face.
Be More Resourceful
What if you could focus on what is rather than how you think things should be? Releasing expectations about your situation allows you to take action from where you actually stand. If you know what you’re facing, as opposed to an altered version of it, it’s likely that you’ll have more clarity. You’ll be able to see what the real constraints are and where there are openings for change. And all that energy that you’re putting into wishing things were different can be harnessed to take action with what actually is.
When you stay in the present moment, there is more available to you to come to a solution. You can then respond wisely and in a fully informed manner, rather than reacting blindly. You develop the superpower of conscious clarity. Watch this light animation of Dan Harris explaining how practicing mindfulness can be a superpower.
A Mind in the Now Fosters Confidence and creativity
When we focus on what’s actually going on right now, we shed comparisons with others, harsh judgments about ourselves, and our analysis of our circumstances. All of these thoughts sap our natural creativity, and besides being overly-critical, they are rarely accurate.
When we live in the present moment, our attention is focused on what we’re experiencing and instead of getting caught up in negative self-talk, we can simply note it and move on. We leave rigid ways of understanding our experience behind. This flexibility clears room for new thoughts and ideas, and the results are often a rush of creativity.
Integrating mindfulness practices into our lives provides a multitude of benefits: we spend more time in the here and now, we experience less anxiety and more calm, and we enjoy deeper and more meaningful relationships. We reduce the tendency toward tunnel vision and see more options and choices, and this helps us feel less trapped by our circumstances. And we remove barriers that stifle our creativity and confidence.
It’s easy to get absorbed in our email, phones, and the most recent text message. Just as easily we get lost in our own internal thoughts. When you find yourself distracted, worried, or anxious, take a few minutes to bring your attention to your breath. It’s a sure-fired way to access the present moment.
Learn How to Be Mindful Within the Present
Through her experience as a physician coach, Dr. Gail Gazelle improves the lives of doctors throughout the United States. If you would like to learn how to become more aware and mindful, reduce stress, and decrease burnout, contact Dr. Gazelle today.
Two hours of administrative tasks for every hour with patients. A proliferation of non-physician administrators deciding how the day is going to run. Little in our training about how to cope with uncertainty and change. It’s no surprise that burnout rates are approaching 60%. Despite being so common, when we see a colleague struggling with physician burnout, we may not know what to say. Responding appropriately can bring someone back from burnout and may even save a life. Here are some tips:
Approach the situation with compassion
Burnout is often referred to as erosion of the soul, and for good reason. With it comes a great sense of despair, hopelessness, and isolation. We lose our perspective.
Often there is no better remedy than the kindness of a colleague, someone who has walked in our shoes and knows what we’re experiencing. Approach the colleague with the empathetic aim of letting them know that you care about them, you’ve noticed that they are struggling, and you’re there for them. Afraid of saying the wrong thing? Here are some ways to convey your concern.
“I can see you’ve had a rough week.”
“I’m concerned about you.”
“I get why you’re feeling this way.”
“I don’t have answers but I want you to know I’m here and I care about you.”
“You deserve to feel better.”
“I know these feelings will pass.”
Normalize the experience
With burnout comes a sense of personal inadequacy. Everyone else seems to be coping with all the stress. What’s wrong with me? Tell your colleague that what they’re experiencing is normal and that many physicians are having the same feelings. Let them know there’s nothing wrong with them. Make it clear that these harsh feelings do not mean that they are a failure. And, no matter what they’re thinking, that experiencing burnout is a normal response to the stressors of modern practice and doesn’t mean they’re in the wrong career.
Don’t problem solve or give advice
As physicians, we’re conditioned to fix whatever problem the person in front of us has. It is quite literally what we are trained to do. But with burnout, we need to suspend our desire to problem-solve. Instead of doing something, we need to focus on simply being present with a colleague’s suffering.
On that same note, we also need to avoid giving advice. Giving advice sends an implicit message that the person doesn’t have the inner resources to solve their problem. Not only that, but the last thing someone wants to hear when they’re low on energy, overwhelmed by demands, and disconnected from any sense of meaning is “I know how to solve your problem, here’s what you should do.” Simply listening without suggesting any action can help someone in burnout begin the critical step of gaining perspective on their situation.
Help them connect with their accomplishments
When we’re in burnout, we’re focused on everything that’s wrong, with the workplace and with ourselves. We’re disconnected from meaning and purpose. Positives slide off us like Teflon and negatives stick as if attached by Velcro. Whatever our strengths and accomplishments may be, we believe we have none. It’s critical to find a way to reconnect with the things we are accomplishing.
Ask your colleague if they’d consider keeping a running list of three things they accomplish every day. This simple exercise can provide ballast against the pull to inadequacy and negativity.
Let them know seeking help is not a sign of weakness
We learn early in training that seeking help is a sign of weakness. We’re the head of the team and we’re supposed to have all the answers. Yet, we can’t solve every problem by ourselves (no one can.) Reassure your colleague that asking for help is a sign of health, not weakness. Recommend that they speak to loved ones and other colleagues. Encourage them to seek coaching or other professional help.
While you can’t change the external landscape, know that applying these tips can make a big difference in a colleague’s ability to see a way forward. In summary, remind yourself to listen compassionately. Normalize their experience. Avoid the temptation to give advice or problem-solve. Help them see their strengths and accomplishments. Let them know that seeking help is often vital and is not a sign of weakness. Reassure that they can find a way to meet the intense demands of practice with much less anguish.
Data confirms high rates of physician burnout, but it doesn’t tell us how burnout can be avoided. In fact, data on preventing physician burnout is almost nonexistent. One thing we do know, however, is that physician leadership is a key variable. Physician leaders can make or break a workable culture. A 2015 study from the Mayo Clinic found that qualities of physicians’ leadership accounted for 47% of the variation in physician satisfaction and 11% of the variation in physician burnout. Looking at their study, a number of leadership attributes stand out that can be helpful in avoiding physician burnout
Treating physicians with compassion
Compassion is a core value for most physicians but is increasingly bypassed in medical practices. Recently, I coached a 47-year-old Internal Medicine medical director who oversaw 80 primary care physicians. Much of the stress of his job was conveying edicts from the administration to the physicians he supervised. At the end of a particularly terse medical director meeting, the Chief Medical Officer bluntly told the medical directors that, in addition to recent cuts, they would need to inform their physicians of a further 10% pay cut. There was no discussion of the impact this would have and the news was delivered in a cut and dry fashion. My coaching client felt morose, defeated, like a cog in the wheel of the healthcare factory. The communication had flown completely in the face of compassion, a core value for him. He wondered how much longer he could go on in his position. He noted that if the same news had been delivered with concern for the impact it would have, while the consequences would still be painful, he would have experienced a greater sense of hopefulness and community. I coached him around maintaining his values by learning from this experience and never repeating this type of conduct. We continued to focus on making sure that each and every one of his communications conveyed the compassion he knew first-hand was vital in maintaining morale and avoiding physician burnout.
Employee engagement has been hailed as the single most important factor in determining levels of satisfaction with work. In a 2012 meta-analysis of research studies, Gallup found that compared with the bottom quartile, companies in the top quartile for engaged employees had 22% higher profitability, 10% higher customer ratings, and 48% fewer safety incidents.
Engagement is the antithesis of burnout. The many administrative burdens physicians face make it difficult for physicians to engage fully with their most important task: caring for patients. Physician leadership makes a pivotal difference. Given the many metrics coming down the pike, leaders need to constantly orient their approach around such questions as: “While metrics need to be pursued, how can I focus on how hard my physicians are trying rather than whether they’re meeting each specific target?” “What actions can I take today to help my physicians feel more energized and engaged.” “How can I facilitate my physicians performing at their best?” Sometimes small actions go a long way to facilitating engagement.
Recognizing a job well done
Everyone wants to feel valued and recognized for their contribution, yet in the current healthcare environment, too often the emphasis is on areas of deficiency rather than successes. A Chief Medical Officer I coached worked with her team to achieve large improvements in productivity. To remain competitive, however, metrics revealed that further improvement was needed. While her tendency was to focus on the gap between where clinicians were and where she wanted them to be, I coached her to focus on the gains rather than the deficits. She worked to ground each communication with her physicians on the strides they had made, identifying what strengths and skills they had used to make improvements, and assisting them in utilizing similar approaches to glean greater success. In a subsequent satisfaction survey, her physicians gave her the highest scores.
Communicating with positivity We spend most of our waking hours communicating with others, but very often the rush keeps us from doing so in a respectful and positive manner. In a 2004 study of 60 top management teams engaged in annual strategic planning, the single most important factor in predicting organizational performance was the ratio of positive to negative communications. The research revealed that in high-performing organizations, the ratio of positive to negative communications in their top management teams was 5.6 to 1. By contrast, in low-performing organizations the ratio was 0.36 to 1. In a recent physician resilience retreat I led, I asked the audience how their risk of burnout would improve if their leaders focused more on the positive. The responses were instructive: “It would be infectious,” “I’d be more productive,” “I’d be less irritable,” “There would be less spill-over with my family.” Anecdotally and empirically, the evidence for positive communication is high.
A principle of effective leadership is listening affirmatively and supportively, being open to the input of others, and not jumping in with one’s own opinion and advice. Leaders who inspire dedication, sacrifice, and grit are ones who listen openly. As noted by Stephen Covey, effective leaders communicate with the goal of seeking understanding. A key skill is to ask open-ended questions. Open-ended questions communicate a deeper interest in the person’s response, increasing their sense of being heard. By shifting from questions that suggest a right and wrong answer, open-ended questions encourage others to respond more fully, contributing to greater engagement.
If you’re a physician leader, take heart in knowing that your actions can have a significant impact in mitigating physician burnout. Even if you’re suffering from physician burnout yourself, you can help motivate physicians to overcome the challenges they face. If you are a front-line clinician, please feel free to forward this post to your physician leadership. Many physician leaders are excellent clinicians or researchers and bemoan the fact that their leadership skills are limited. Most are happy to learn ways that they can improve.