A Panel Discussion – Protecting Our People: Reducing Burnout

March 31, 2022 Fiona Sykes

On our first stop in Atlanta on the RLDatix 2022 Connections Tour, participants had the opportunity to hear from healthcare leaders about how they are trying to combat burnout by invoking cultural shifts to achieve safer patients, a safer workforce and a safer organization. 

A dual pronged approach to address the root causes of burnout and invoke change was discussed where healthcare leaders need to actively engage in industry conversations where best practices and learnings are shared and also engage on the floors of their health systems with staff who are dealing with burnout and are struggling to identify both short term and long-term solutions.  

Healthcare leaders are actively working to reduce burnout by helping treat the symptoms of burnout with immediate intervention strategies while at the same time working to truly understand the underlying causes of burnout to drive in hopes of eliminating triggers for burnout through systemic change. 

During the discussion on burnout, the panel discussed various intervention strategies and systemic changes that have successfully been used to help organizations address the challenge of burnout. Two of those strategies from the panel are highlighted below:  

Knowing your leaders have your back – Immediate Interventions 

Cindy Baldwin knows that individual interventions from leadership can make all the difference when burnout symptoms are identified. Staff members who feel supported and who can share frustrations or express problems in the moment with trusted leaders may also be more likely to report issues in their organization when they see them. Having issues regularly reported can lead to an overall improved culture of safety and give leadership the information they need to gather resources to enact positive change and prevent additional causes of burnout. 

But it is a circular issue. For leaders to have access to a complete picture of data to be able to track patterns and trends to identify and react to both immediate triggers and root causes of burnout, leaders must also build trust and set a tone within the organization that creates a safe space for their workforce to speak up and share elements of their experience that are contributing to their burnout. Often, it’s not just one thing – it is the combination of many things, including being overworked and chronically understaffed or under-resourced while experiencing pervasive grief and stressful work conditions.  

Ann Louise Puopolo, the chair of our RLDatix Customer Advisory Board, suggests the best way to achieve a safer organization may be through directly asking healthcare workforces what they want and what they need. Organizations may find that it is not an improved EAP that their workforce is looking for, although improved access to mental healthcare can certainly help treat symptoms of burnout. The open-ended questions can beget a variety of answers providing insight into your organization’s needs – and many executives do not regularly have the opportunity to hear directly from frontline staff. 

Shifting your culture – Systemic Change 

While addressing the symptoms of burnout when they are visible is important, it’s critical that health systems look past the surface and consider how decisions made in the past may be contributing to burnout now, and how they can be remedied. For example, organizations may be finding that staff wellness programs need to be more robust and better funded to support a stressed workforce, or that although culture of safety surveys are being performed and the results are being collected and analyzed, the findings could be better used to implement targeted improvements to improve culture and reduce staff burnout.   

Panelists at the Atlanta Connections event kept returning to a salient point – while staff can take advantage of wellness programs and work to address the symptoms of burnout, the way we can help to prevent healthcare workforce burnout is by calling for leaders to recognize and set into motion a cultural shift needed to treat the root causes of burnout at the system level. The root cause of burnout is not a direct line to “working too many hours” or “COVID,” because we know burnout was a problem even before COVID had exasperated the problem.  The systemic decisions which lead to staff burnout can be looked for in decisions related to finances, staff rostering, employee satisfaction scores, organizational culture, outdated policies, diversity, equity and inclusion, and workplace violence.   

As organizations face the challenges of workforce burnout in conjunction with staff shortages, many of the most seasoned clinicians have left healthcare.  While these shortages are being filled with new hires and agency staff (when necessary) these team members have less institutional knowledge, but fresh perspective can be an asset when looking to identify and make systemic changes. Many of the seasoned clinicians who are retiring or are leaving the industry were also champions of change and were tuned into the systemic issues that contribute to burnout in their hospitals and departments. Dr. Tim McDonald has one of the most powerful open-ended questions that he utilizes each time he meets with hospital staff, and that is “if they could wave a magic wand, what they would change.” While this is a broad question, it can be asked within the context of burnout or any other area that leadership wants to learn more about. The natural follow-up question of "why is that something you would want to change" gets to the heart of the matter and helps executives see additional context. The value of leadership actively participating in root cause analyses on burnout in their organization and acting as both a spearhead and champion for change cannot be overemphasized. 

If you are interested in some additional resources on burnout, you can access our blog entry on “Building a strategy for burnout prevention is about improving your workplace, not about your employees” and can join our group on HUB to continue the conversation! 

Panel Members: 

Cindy Baldwin - Sr. Associate, Dept of Pediatrics & School of Nursing, Vanderbilt - Center for Patient & Professional Advocacy  

Dr. Tim McDonald - Chief Patient Safety & Risk Officer, RLDatix 

Ann Louise Puopolo - Chair, Customer Advisory Board, RLDatix 

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