About two years ago, I had an experience that opened my mind to the wider possibilities of professional coaching. After interviewing one of its founders, I participated in the Novant Health Leadership Development Program, which involves small group coaching in a 3-day, off-site retreat. I saw that coaching can change individual clinicians’ lives AND organizations. When cohorts of physicians received formal coaching in small groups, the process eventually reshaped the organization. Physicians and staff became more collegial and more willing to talk about how they’re doing. And, because they had more energy and bandwidth, they started engaging in improvement and fixing system problems, creating an EHR optimization team, for example.
Before participating in the Novant program, I was steadfast in my belief that the only way to reverse the epidemic of physician burnout is to fix our broken health care system—the toxic culture, the inefficient processes, the work arounds, miscommunication, errors, gaps, and chaos.
Coaching, to my mind, was one of those individual solutions that organizations tend to throw first at the problem of burnout. Like mindfulness training, yoga, and meditation, coaching could help folks become more resilient to chaotic workplaces but it didn’t change the chaos. While valuable, it failed to fix the real problem. Or so I thought.
After all, the main premise of the book I co-authored, based on research and interviews, was that the problem causing physician burnout is the dysfunctional work environment—and the fix is interventions that address the underlying causes. As Christina Maslach, PhD, a pioneer in burnout research, so eloquently told us in an interview, “Despite research that shows the importance of the environment, background, and situation, people still think, ‘too bad that person can’t handle it.’ A harder message to hear, or more overwhelming one, is that the problem is more than the individual.”
After seeing the power of coaching to change lives and organizations, I devoted most of the past 24 months to becoming a professional certified coach. In the meantime, a RCT was published showing the benefits of 1:1 professional coaching in reducing physician burnout. I still strongly believe that the system problems must be fixed, yet I now think a variety of approaches are needed to reverse the burnout epidemic and that coaching is an important one to have in our toolkit.
Powerful coaching changes lives. It can change systems too.