When I speak to groups or write about physician burnout, I often hear back from clinicians who are thankful someone is validating their experiences. As one young physician wrote me:
“I went into medicine for the right reasons, but find myself, after only six years, approaching burnout. I felt like I would be a failure if I were to ever actually say [this] out loud … I feel frustrated by the lack of support from the administration."
Her email reflects the sentiment of too many physicians today who feel their organizational leaders simply do not care about the inefficiencies and systemic issues that are a major cause of the widespread burnout among clinicians.
Indeed, a new athenahealth survey of more than 1,000 practicing physicians found that physicians who gave low marks to the long-term leadership abilities of their administrators were more likely to report low confidence in their ability to do their job well and more likely to exhibit low levels of engagement — as defined by their willingness to go above and beyond in their jobs and to recommend and stay with their organizations.
Read more here.
On a sunny day in July, I dutifully ensconced myself at my desk and connected to a half-day National Academy of Medicine conference on burnout. All the speakers were interesting, but my ears really perked up toward the end of the event, when Jo Shapiro, MD, director of the Center for Professionalism and Peer Support and Chief of the Division of Otolaryngology in the Department of Surgery at the Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston and an Associate Professor of Otolaryngology at Harvard Medical School, spoke about the connection between leadership and physician well-being.
Her comments resonated with questions I’ve been contemplated a lot lately: What role do leaders have in addressing burnout among their physicians? And how do we compel them to do so, when they have so many conflicting priorities? Too often, leaders don’t seem to grasp the importance and severity of burnout, especially among their physicians. Most of the physicians with burnout whom I’ve interviewed describe little if any effective action from leaders to address the underlying causes of burnout.
I contacted Shapiro, who generously agreed to a phone interview. Here’s a recap of our conversation.
A few weeks ago, I had the opportunity to interview a faculty physician at a large academic medical center. We spoke about burnout in students and faculty in general terms. He was aware of the problem yet did not seem affected himself.
I asked him how he managed to avoid burnout. He talked about remembering his purpose in entering medicine—that the profession is a calling, not just the daily tasks involved—by re-reading thank you cards from patients, residents, and students. He talked about taking time to chat with the staff in the clinics where he works, getting to know the schedulers by name for example, to create connection in a world where he sees fewer and fewer opportunities to connect than in the past. Then he mentioned his “boss,” the chair of the department, a practicing internist herself.
He told me that her leadership helped him in small ways and large to avoid burnout. He mentioned her habit of asking, “How are you?” and meaning, “How are you doing as a person?” He said he had the sense that she cared about his well-being as well as the advancement of his career. His mention of his supervisor as a source of “burnout protection” caught my attention. The physicians I’ve interviewed rarely speak about their leader’s role in preventing burnout.