By Gayle Capozzalo, FACHE
Published in partnership with the American College of Healthcare Executives
Amid new variants, surges and vaccination resistance, front-line healthcare workers are exhausted, with many stressed to the breaking point. In fact, the industry has lost nearly half a million workers since February 2020—as much as 18% of the workforce. Burnout is one major culprit. Many who have left have simply thrown in the towel because they felt overwhelmed, in danger and unable to deliver care at the level they expect for themselves.
Low clinical staffing levels, in turn, make it even more likely that those who stay will also suffer from burnout. Women employees across industries have been disproportionately leaving the workplace and experience burnout at a higher rate than men, according to McKinsey’s Women in the Workplace 2021 report.
As executive director of The Equity Collaborative, an initiative of The Carol Emmott Foundation, I work with executives representing member healthcare systems committed to leadership gender equity. The good news is that the best practices we champion support equity for all and are intended to make working in healthcare better for everyone. At our most recent meeting, we strategized on addressing burnout and clinical employee retention and satisfaction.
Here are three successful strategies our members are using.
- Lead with care.
Meeting the demands associated with a constant state of emergency has been extremely hard on front-line workers.
Our industry has made great strides in recognizing the stress and psychological impacts associated with managing the COVID-19 pandemic. Mental health has moved front and center. This is one tangible benefit of the experience; the pandemic has destigmatized mental health issues such as burnout. It’s become OK to ask for help and, with the right management support, front-line workers and managers feel safer about seeking help.
How you and your executives conduct themselves during the crisis has a direct impact. For example, McKinsey reports that workers in the pandemic feel psychologically safest under a blend of consultative and supportive leadership. Executives clinging to the authoritative style of leadership do so at their peril; this old-school leadership approach does not foster psychological safety.
Unfortunately, the study shows a minority of leaders adopting these behaviors in the pandemic. That represents a significant opportunity for you and your executive team. To give workers the best psychological edge, align leadership and leader development with consultative and supportive practices. In addition, transformational management is taking the place of transactional management. A singular focus on transactions, which is important in the industrial age, does not consider the ecosystem of healthcare and can further alienate health workers. Now more than ever, cultural competency is necessary; we must take time to be sensitive to others and avoid filtering through our own biases as leaders.
- Invest in psychological support.
Rush Health is a network of hospitals and physicians based in Illinois and a member of The Equity Collaborative. Understanding the risks of burnout and anticipating a potential surge, its leadership has been proactive with offering new ways to provide psychological support.
Rush Health commissioned a special wellness task force, which developed key mitigation strategies to triage employees at risk, including having psychology staff accessible 24/7 for free. Initially, they embedded psychological support experts in the patient care areas. Based on feedback, this became an on-request service, so that experts could be deployed to the area of greatest need. The effort also included consistent staffing ratios and schedules and enhanced communication and reporting.
Rush reports a dramatic increase in wellness program utilization. Monthly participation in psychotherapy, coaching, yoga, mini retreats and stress management training went from a few hundred in August 2020 to more than 1,000 in June 2021 and more than 1,500 in December 2021.
- Look at the schedule.
Asking front-line employees to work longer hours is a major cause of burnout. Many of the HR best practices performed by our members, including consistent scheduling and capped overtime, can help mitigate stress, prevent burnout and improve employee retention. Recommendations surrounding scheduling include a core schedule, where the employee has a set of shifts or a set number of hours per week, schedules posted two weeks in advance and the ability to swap shifts.
Flexible hours and eight-hour shifts may seem counterintuitive and impractical in an era when staff hours are in short supply. However, striving for these standards is critical to maintaining the psychological health of those taking up the slack, so they do not join the exodus.
Doing Nothing Isn’t an Option
Some of these strategies to mitigate burnout probably feel difficult if not impossible amid so many competing and pressing priorities, especially financial pressures.
Even when we can’t do everything to mitigate burnout, doing nothing isn’t an option. Employee retention and satisfaction depend on proactively addressing this issue. If eight-hour shifts won’t work right now, offering employees the opportunity to take breaks more frequently might. Maybe there’s a space that can be dedicated to quiet reflection for front-line employees. Adapt a consultative and supportive leadership style and ask them what ideas they have. By offering psychological support, making connections with employees and striving to use strategies such as scheduling best practices, organizations can make a real difference when it comes to burnout.
Gayle L. Capozzalo, FACHE, is the executive director of The Equity Collaborative, an initiative of The Carol Emmott Foundation, and a past ACHE Chair. She will be a presenter at the 2022 ACHE Congress on Healthcare Leadership. Gayle can be reached at email@example.com.